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Does Finding Meaning in Your Work Lead to Happiness?
Life

Does Finding Meaning in Your Work Lead to Happiness?

Dr Selin Kesebir is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. She discusses what people need to find happiness at work.
27th Jun 2023

Dr Selin Kesebir is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS), where she teaches Executive Leadership and Negotiations. Her research interests include cooperation, competition, gender, inequality and cultural transmission. 

Kesebir was Editor in Chief of contemporary psychology magazine In-Mind from 2010 to 2013. She currently teaches the elective module ‘Wisdom and Happiness’ at LBS, which is aimed at students who want to reflect on how to live more fulfilling personal and professional lives.

What is psychology’s place in a business school?

Psychology has always been part of business education but it usually centres around the psychology of the employee, or leader and follower team dynamics. But there’s more to psychology than that; ideas such as personality and positive psychology, which is the study of human flourishing, are now finding their way into business schools.

The course isn’t only about wellbeing or happiness at work, but rather how you can look at your life and the world in order to create more value in all dimensions. 

I’ve developed a new elective for the LBS MBA called ‘Wisdom and Happiness’. My teaching interests are around how people can create better lives for themselves and others. My course isn’t something the students usually do as part of their business-school experience, but they find it useful to talk about life more generally rather than just focusing on careers. The course isn’t only about wellbeing or happiness at work, but rather how you can look at your life and the world in order to create more value in all dimensions. 

Is there a distinction between happiness at work and in life? 

Reality isn’t fractured into disconnected domains in a way that isolates work from everything else going on in your life. There isn’t a clear-cut distinction between somebody’s approach to their work, their attitude in the workplace and the way they build relationships there versus how they conduct themselves in their personal life.

Happiness is often defined as if it excludes any negative experiences. But we don’t have to define happiness that way. Sustainable, lifelong happiness will have difficult emotions in it because life has challenges. You cannot force emotions into your life because that isn’t reacting to reality in the right way. 

There are reports of soldiers who find war to be a meaningful experience, especially the bonds that they build with their fellow soldiers. It might be very meaningful but it’s also a very difficult experience. It isn’t associated with the traditional meaning of happiness, but it can be a positive experience for some nevertheless. 

How do you teach your students about where they can find happiness in work? 

Happiness overall is about our relationships: it comes from a healthy relationship with yourself, other people and the rest of the world. 

When we are trying to be happy – not just at work – we need to have a certain type of relationship with ourselves. That includes not being overly self-absorbed and instead focusing on a mission or task that we believe is meaningful.

“There isn’t a clear-cut distinction between somebody’s approach to their work, their attitude in the workplace and the way they build relationships there versus how they conduct themselves in their personal life.”

Our relationships with other people contribute to our wellbeing. But how do we relate in a positive way with other people? The principle I follow is: show goodwill and do not hurt, disrespect or demean others. This gives a solid ground from which to start building the right types of relationships. 

Some find happiness when they focus on the outside world rather than the internal. A ‘giving’ focus is more aligned with happiness than a ‘taking’ focus. However, it is also important to protect yourself. Being nice can lead to being taken advantage of, so developing self-awareness around people’s motivations will help to prevent an unhappy workplace.

It is also about how you relate reality to your expectations. Happiness can be influenced by the gap between what you expect to happen and what is happening. This doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a miserable work experience but you should have a more realistic sense of the likelihood of facing difficulties in your work. 

Happiness can be influenced by the gap between what you expect to happen and what is happening.

Finally, the most classical but abstract point: happiness is about knowing yourself. People who are happy – and more successful – at work are very aware of their strengths and weaknesses; they don’t force themselves into situations where they’re inadequate. You must direct yourself to choices where your strengths are required and your weaknesses are made irrelevant. If you want to be happy, you need to find the right place for you.

Do you think business students are becoming more engaged with different disciplines?

I think the average business student is less concerned with life’s big questions than the average humanities student. But at the same time, everybody deals with questions of happiness: how can I have better relationships? How can I feel more fulfilled by the end of my life? There’s a subset of business students who are very hungry for this type of content.

So the question is, how do you really educate these people? The people who graduate from a business school tend to be very privileged people who then go on to have a disproportionate influence on the way society runs. I want to educate these people in a way that will maximise their positive contribution to their societies and to the world in general.