WHICH is more important to your overall well-being: the work you do, or the people you work with?
Today, we tend to focus a lot on the work itself. For years, young people have been told to “follow your passion” and “do what you love.” Companies of all stripes have lured talent by promising that together, they and their employees can change the world. And although companies also brag about their company cultures, often this is a code for perks like flexibility.
But a new book by the director and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development taps that long-running study on contentment to make the case that relationships — including our work relationships — are far more important than we give them credit for. The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and psychologist Marc Schulz, draws on more than 80 years of data. Multiple generations of researchers followed the study’s participants — mostly Harvard undergraduates and low-income boys living in Boston tenements — for most of their lives, interviewing them and asking them to fill out questionnaires every few years. Many of their children now participate in the study.
The findings suggest that more of us should pay attention not only to what we do for a living, but whom we do it with.
“Many of us spend most of our waking hours at work,” Schulz told me. “What we found in following our participants across decades of their lives, and now following their children, is that the connections that people have at work are really critical — and that work is a pretty important source of connection for many people.”
In fact, the happiest man in the study, whom they call Leo, never achieved his dream of becoming a writer. Instead, he became a teacher. It wasn’t what he had planned — and likely wouldn’t have happened if his father’s death and his mother’s Parkinson’s diagnosis hadn’t forced him away from his chosen path. But his relationships with his students and colleagues made him so happy that he turned down several promotions.
It’s not that money doesn’t matter — wealthier people tend to have a longer life expectancy, for one thing, and the study’s richest participants lived about nine years longer than the poorest. But looking at the data — their own, and others’ — “money matters most at lower levels of income where a dollar, euro, rupee, or yuan is used to provide basic needs and a sense of security,” write Schulz and Waldinger. “Once you get above that threshold, money does not seem to matter much, if at all, when it comes to happiness.”
We also tend to underestimate what the day-to-day experience of work might be, even for things we’re passionate about. If Leo had become a writer, for example, he would have likely spent many days alone, rather than in noisy classrooms or convivial staffrooms.
Henry and Rosa, another of the study’s happier couples, experienced something similar. Henry worked in an auto plant, and Rosa, his wife, in the city payroll office. They didn’t love their work — it was pretty hum-drum — but they both enjoyed real camaraderie with their colleagues, often inviting them over for backyard barbecues. Over the course of their careers, they reported far higher levels of contentment than study participants who achieved greater financial success. In fact, when Henry retired, he missed work so much that he got a part-time job.
What about work-life balance? This is tricky. While Leo had strong family relationships, the work sometimes pulled him away from his wife and children. In fact, his family told researchers they wished he had spent more time with them. As a full-time working parent, that was tough for me to read.
And by the time they reached their 70s and 80s, many study participants told researchers they regretted spending so much time at work — even if they had loved their jobs. One man, called Michael, took pride in his work and considered it his life’s purpose. But his work ethic took a toll on his marriage. “You don’t always notice what you’ve missed,” he told the researcher interviewing him. “One day you turn around and you realize it’s too late.”
Maybe the best any of us can hope for is making peace with the sense that we’re always robbing Peter to pay Paul — always shortchanging one important relationship in our lives to nurture another. At least then we know we have multiple relationships worth the investment.
Even if you buy the idea that work friendships are vitally important, the modern workplace doesn’t make it easy to forge them. Not only are more of us spending more time working from home, we have to contend with the pressure to be maximally efficient; technology that lets us do more of our jobs independently rather than collaboratively; even HR policies that dissuade sharing personal information.
Power differentials can be especially fraught in a culture that believes emotions and work should never mix. A woman named Ellen told the researchers that she’d forged friendships with a handful of subordinates only to be betrayed by another woman, who apparently thought their closeness was unprofessional and left copies of her confidential appraisals on their desks. She found it so upsetting that she never formed another close relationship with a colleague for the rest of her career.
And on top of all that, we’ve got families to rush home to, errands to run, and friends outside of work we’re trying to keep up with. Women’s second-shift responsibilities — the childcare and household chores that women still do more of than men — also make it tougher to find the time to form friendships at work.
But friendships — even marriages — spring up in offices despite these hurdles. “Connections with others are always within our reach,” Schulz told me. “Relationships aren’t easy. They do require attending to. But if we want to have the benefits, we also have to accept some of the challenges.”
Friendships are “risky and messy and unpredictable,” he said, attributes that don’t exactly sound workplace appropriate. But if we want to enjoy our time at work — and feel happier overall — maybe that’s exactly where we need to be.