Over the last year, we surveyed thousands of respondents on their experience of happiness and meaning -- both at work and outside of work. While many of our findings were consistent with our expectations, one was a surprise.
We asked respondents to note the percentage of time they spent on activities that produced high amounts of short-term gratification (or happiness) but low amounts of long-term benefit (or meaning). We classified these activities -- things like gossiping and watching TV -- under the category "stimulating." Then we conducted an analysis, comparing the number of hours respondents spent on the "stimulating" activities to their overall satisfaction with life at work and at home.
Participants who spent more hours engaged in "stimulating" activities rated themselves as having lower overall satisfaction with life at work. This was not surprising to us. Most people don't go to work with the idea of "just having fun." They go to work with the idea of accomplishing important goals.
The more surprising (to us) finding was that respondents who reported spending more hours on activities that produced high amounts of short-term satisfaction but low amounts of long-term benefit reported lower overall satisfaction with life outside of work.
We had assumed that when many people went home, they would be content with "just having fun" and not feel much need to care about the long-term implications of their activities. Were we ever wrong!
We're just beginning to conduct much more extensive studies on happiness, meaning and engagement at work and at home. For now, here are some of our initial thoughts on these findings:
- Companies that invest in activities that are supposed to be "fun" but are also meaningless are probably squandering their money and their employees' time. "Employee fun day" may well be a waste -- it only leads to increased cynicism. Most professionals are extremely busy. They don't need to go to work to be entertained. They can do that at home.
- According to a recently published study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American teenager is spending more than seven hour a day on non-academic media (including TV, movies, video games, texting, etc.). Most of these activities would meet our definition of "stimulating." Our research indicates that this near-addiction to entertaining media may well lead to lower overall satisfaction in both personal and professional life.
- Retirees, especially professionals who retire, need to consider how to find meaning in their later years. Playing countless rounds of mediocre golf -- with the same old men and women, at the same country club, eating the same chicken sandwiches, while discussing gall bladder surgery and who you used to be -- may not lead to an ultimately satisfying life.
- While a little fun time is great, a lot of it can do more harm than good. Rather than watching another TV show, it might be good if we challenged ourselves by finding ways to help other people in need. Finding meaning can be more important than finding amusement.