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The commonly-held belief is that there’s a correlation between your happiness at work and your productivity. And while this assertion has been borne out in decades of research studies focusing on how happiness can make you more productive, those studies are lacking important context. It turns out you can be both productive and miserable—but it’s not great for you.

Let’s look at the science, and bust the myth that productivity only occurs when you’re blissed out—and figure out if you might actually need to seek a more fulfillment in spite of your stellar output.

What is the happy-productive worker thesis?

The happy-productive worker thesis is basically a theory that happier workers are better workers—and it’s been studied for decades. Like any theory or hypothesis, however, the more it’s studied, the more the big brains studying it disagree. For instance, research published in 2008 pointed out that in many of past studies, happiness was measured by participants’ job satisfaction—but “job satisfaction may not be an effective proxy for happiness.” Fair enough: You can be satisfied with your income and benefits and pleased enough with your work, but not happy or fulfilled.

In 2019, researchers got more granular with the thesis, suggesting that instead of happy-productive and unhappy-unproductive, there are four patterns a worker could fall into: Happy-productive, unhappy-unproductive, happy-unproductive, and unhappy-productive. Like their predecessors in 2008, these researchers were also annoyed with the past focus on job satisfaction, so they measured happiness in both hedonic and eudaimonic terms—meaning they measured both pleasure and positivity (hedonic) and workers’ growth and sense of meaning (eudaimonic). They found that over half the people they studied were actually unhappy-productive or happy-unproductive, which is bad news for the old belief that happiness and productivity go hand in hand.

Ultimately, they concluded workers are more complex than the original happy-productive worker thesis gives them space to be. In fact, workers can be unhappy in a hedonic way but happy in a eudaimonic way, or vice versa, meaning there can be fun and joy at work but no fulfillment, or the other way around.

What does this mean for you?

For all the energy invested and ink spilled on this kind of research, it’s not shocking to everyday people that you can be both unhappy and productive at work, but unhappiness will eventually catch up with you one way or another, so you should strive for happiness. The main insight from the research is that happiness isn’t a one-track thing. You need to be enjoying your environment and fulfilled by what you’re doing. Using the hierarchy of needs to assess your job is a good place to start if you feel like you need to make changes, whether internally at the company or by leaving for another one.

Don’t think that just because you’re meeting benchmarks and doing solid work, everything is fine and dandy. Just because that’s what the old wisdom preaches doesn’t make it correct; you could actually be unhappy-productive and not even clock it until it’s too late and you’re headed for a burnout. Spend some time reevaluating your work-life balance to see where you can make improvements in your hedonic and eudaimonic joys. Maybe you’ll be even more productive when you’re even happier.

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