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Are we happier at home or work? The answer might surprise you!

Since we posed this question back in 2018, there has been a massive switch towards remote and hybrid working. So how has this paradigm change affected our happiness? The answer might still surprise you.

Where are YOU happiest? It can’t be at work… or can it?!

When I suggest that people are happier at work than at home, the usual response is utter denial. After all: don’t we look forward to our well-earned personal time?

Well yes, we do – but there’s a catch. While at work we’re more often engaged in activities, solving problems and enjoying achievements that result in increased overall fulfilment – and this isn’t necessarily true at home.

Leading psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a seminal study on happiness. He monitored the mood of thousands of subjects, from a variety of roles and backgrounds, on an hourly basis over the course of a year. His findings were overwhelming: people were happier at work than not.

Csikszentmihalyi asks, ‘What makes a life worth living?’ He suggests that money is not the key to happiness, finding instead that pleasure and satisfaction are achieved from activities that increase our state of ‘flow’. In this state we are fully immersed in what we are doing and experiencing feelings of absorption, engagement, skill and fulfillment.

After a shift at work our brain tends to shut down to conserve energy

During the transition from work to home we often take a dive and lose our sense of achievement. Generally speaking, at home we tend to slip into routines that don’t offer a sense of achievement or that state of flow. Instead we’re sucked into mundane chores of fixing dinner, putting the kids to bed or watching TV.

Why does this happen? Most of us don’t have the same formal process at home as we do at work. We’re more like Alice in Wonderland, drifting aimlessly – as the Cheshire Cat aptly stated: ‘If you don’t know where you want to get to, then it doesn’t matter which way you go’. In other words we amble along – rather than trying to achieve specific satisfying outcomes. But there’s more to it….

Equal measures of stretch and support keeps our brain in peak condition for optimal performance – in essence, achieving this balance is what good leadership is all about!

Flex your brain muscle

The brain is extremely energy hungry. Despite accounting for just 2% of our body weight it consumes a massive 20% of our entire energy consumption

Homo sapiens evolved at a time when food was a scarce resource, so our brain is designed to conserve energy by switching to autopilot, or ‘standby’ mode whenever it can (for example at the weekend).

At work, a good manager will be skilled at keeping the brain awake by ensuring employees are in the ‘flow zone’ – sufficiently stretching them to stay challenged. However, there is a delicate balance – too much stretch causes stress or anxiety and can severely reduce the brain’s operating potential. Not enough stretch and we quickly become bored or disengaged.

Get in the flow zone

Equal measures of stretch and support keeps our brain in peak condition for optimal performance – in essence, achieving this balance is what good leadership is all about!

The minute we clock off work our brain tends to automatically shut down to conserve energy, and we don’t have an “achievement” mindset or focus.

We justify this by saying to ourselves “I just need some chill-out time”. This is all well and good, however there’s a fine line between chilling out and boredom. All too often, well-deserved chill-out time turns into passivity, for example slumping down in front of the TV for hours at a time. This can breed feelings of dissatisfaction, despondency and even self-condemnation.

As we’ve seen, without a specific challenge, our default setting is ‘minimise effort’. Some people overcome this by engaging a coach. Left to our own devices we don’t stretch ourselves, our brain switches to autopilot and ultimately, we don’t achieve fulfilment and happiness. A good coach will provide stretch and support in equal measure – striking the balance between work and life contentment.

Remote working – the jury is still out.

Many traditionalists suggest that remote working leads to social isolation and lack of work-life boundaries. However, a 2022 survey of 28,000 full-time employees around the globe showed that 79% of respondents improved their work-life balance; 74% reported improved family relationships; 51% strengthened their friendships. 82% said their ability to work from anywhere has made them happier.

Gleb Tsipursky expands on the pros and cons in Psychology Today and suggests that work-life boundaries are the biggest challenge for remote working. By addressing these issues you can be even happier at work when it is from home.