Stop looking for happiness at work – Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Ensuring that EMBL leads by example as a fair, diverse and inclusive workplace

Stop looking for happiness at work

Allow me to begin by explaining what I mean by ‘happiness’. It is a state of deep serenity and fulfilment, which I like to borrow from Matthieu Ricard’s concept of happiness and wellbeing. It is not to be confused with momentary sensations of joy induced by pleasurable experiences.

Martina Peskoller-Fuchs


Why do I say: stop looking for it? Here I would like to introduce you to or remind you of Viktor E. Frankl.  

‘Stop looking for happiness’ relates to Frankl’s postulate that happiness must ‘ensue’ and that it cannot be pursued (‘Happiness must happen’). Thus, happiness is not something we can look, or aim, for directly (by the way, the same seems true for success). Happiness, according to Frankl, may be the very satisfying byproduct of doing what is meaningful. To be more specific, and this is important, not doing something that others suggest to be meaningful, but what is meaningful for the specific individual at the very specific moment (‘ad personam, ad situationem’). This does not mean that one cannot be inspired by others or that several people cannot engage in the same meaningful activity. It might be meaningful for someone to fully focus on work – for an hour, for two or for an entire day, but some time later, the absolute right thing might be to take a break, to look after a colleague, to have a candid talk with a supervisor, maybe even look for another job or actually go home and care for loved ones, take care of chores, or enjoy the beauty of nature, art or music. Thus, nothing is per se and always meaningful and it also cannot be determined for you. Meaning may be realised by our actions, by enjoying or loving, or by choosing a helpful attitude when faced with a situation we cannot change. So, how do we know what is meaningful? It is our inner voice, the one beyond our ego, that guides us. Very often, we will not even notice our inner voice, or that we ought to make a choice. It just happens naturally that we do what is right. Yet sometimes, we do become aware that we have not been in line with that wise inner voice or are fully aware that we need to make a choice. With hindsight, the level of alignment can be inferred from the resulting fulfilment and serenity experienced. That may help us understand if we need to pay more attention to that inner voice and adjust our action and attitude. 

Now, allow me to address the ‘at work’ part of the perhaps bold subject of this article. If you understood from the above that it is not helpful to look for happiness, then it is clear that it cannot be about the place where it should be looked for, and so it will also not be found at work. Yet, many of us still believe, or maybe hope, that happiness, if we do not have it, can and must be found somewhere outside of us. Similarly, happiness seems very often to be tied to outer circumstances, as if it were decided by what exists around us or happens to us. Don’t get me wrong, outer circumstances can provide enormous challenges, but it is clear that people who seem to have everything are not necessarily happy. Work seems an obvious place to look for it, since we spend so much time there and many people do claim to have found happiness at work. Work also seems to be a place where many things happen to us, which could determine our happiness. ‘Work does not make me happy’, have you heard that? I wonder, in light of the above, how it ever could. I do not want to object to casually using this line, but want to draw attention to the fact that it might create unrealistic expectations. It is not that work can actually do that for us. It is our doing, and that is somewhat exhausting, but mainly it can be empowering. 

Further developing on Frankl’s theory, work is a place that allows us to realise meaning in many different ways; to earn a living, to engage in meaningful relations with our colleagues, to potentially make true friends, to help others, to bring our knowledge and skills to an important work project, to be creative, to learn, to teach, to practice tolerance and respect, to develop professionally and personally, to accept what we cannot change, to concentrate on what is ‘ours’, and many more. Maybe – if we are very lucky – even to contribute to something very big: an extraordinary solution to a societal problem or a solution to an individual’s issue? Since work allows us to realise meaning, we may certainly become happy because of our work. Happy, not because it is all so wonderful or it isn’t, but because of how we utilise and respond to the circumstances. ‘The door to happiness opens outward’ according to Kierkegaard, which requires that there is something that needs to be done outside of yourself, a task, a cause, a relationship. There is plenty of it everywhere and particularly at work. And remember that no matter the freedom or possibilities you have, you can and need to always choose your attitude. This is what defines you! Are you bitter, upset, angry, hold grudges or are you understanding, compassionate, forgiving, patient or accepting? Do you let your ever-growing ‘To Do’ list frustrate and stress you when it never ends or do you allow it to present continuous opportunities to learn or teach and thereby derive meaning?

If you still want to look for happiness, then be inspired by Ricard and at the very least look for it inside.  Compassion, loving kindness, respect, appreciation, thoughtfulness, humility as well as mindfulness, he suggests, foster our state of well-being and happiness. If I understand him correctly, then even if all of the above is to be found inside, we ought to get active and practice. He describes happiness as a skill, which means we not only have the potential to learn it, but we need to choose it and practice it, hone it. Here, we can neatly circle back to Frankl’s views, in the sense that it is up to us.    

Writing about Frankl and Ricard in the context of the present EDI Reflections (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) article, I realise that there seems to be a link between the three of them. Inclusion is said to be an ‘act’, something we choose to do, where we become active. Inclusion, without doubt, will benefit from practicing compassion, respect, humility, mindfulness and all that is suggested by Ricard to enhance our well-being. So, practicing what is required to achieve ‘well-being’, and building on those skills to act in an inclusive or at least – as a start – not acting in a manner that excludes, humiliates, demeans, or discriminates, could be something that might  also be meaningful for you, and similarly at work. Frankl, Ricard and practicing inclusion might lead us to a positive path that could bring us, directly or indirectly, to happiness. So why not be happy at work, our choice, our action?