In case you are in the market for a sure-fire method to reduce the enjoyment you take from your job, I discovered something you might find useful: Try to do just enough work to get by.
I made this discovery this summer, during which I was trying hard to work as little as possible. I felt justified in lazing off because I am a college professor, paid on a 9-month-contract, and I was traveling alone with my 10-year-old son. So I reckoned we would have a better vacation if I did not try to squeeze in a lot of work.
But as an academic, some of the work follows you wherever you go, and does not respect any theoretical 9-month work schedule. This summer I was unable to avoid, among other things: editorial comments on revisions of my social psychology textbook, chapters that needed proofreading, the odd committee report that I needed to finish, and a few reviews of papers submitted to scientific journals (those have deadlines so young researchers can quickly learn the fates of papers that will help them publish — or get closer to perishing).
So, for about a month, I did the bare minimum, just enough to get by. And then something surprising happened — I began disliking my job. Indeed, I started to entertain the thought that maybe it was time to retire. That’s a surprise because I have always absolutely loved my job. Indeed, I wrote a blog last year about Eric Kandel, still going strong as a research professor at age 83. I observed to myself at the time that Kandel's approach to work was well worth emulating.
But after a few weeks of summertime lazing around, my wife joined up with us, and I got a few extra hours to work a little more. For me, that meant reading my colleague Vaughn Becker’s research on the psychological power of a happy face, writing up a Psychology Today blog about it, and taking long walks through the streets of Vancouver with my colleague Mark Schaller, with whom I got to chat enthusiastically about research ideas. Over the years, those walking talks have resulted in some of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, such as our paper rebuilding Maslow’s pyramid of motivation on a modern evolutionary foundation (see a description of that work here). And this summer, Schaller and I came up with a whole new research direction, one that will connect our work on fundamental evolved motives with delinquency, disastrous economic decisions, and terrorism. I began to realize again why I love my career so much — I get to explore interesting and important questions, talk about them with curious and thoughtful students and colleagues, and occasionally discover something along the way. Why would I ever want to retire?
This experience also led me to a hypothesis about everyday work habits: Maybe trying to just “get by” is a fantastic way to undermine your job satisfaction.
Of course, not everyone has a job as engaging as that of a college professor who researches human social behavior. But I remembered back to earlier experiences in high school and college. I worked in a supermarket for several years, and at the beginning I was a rather mediocre employee — doing what I was told, but rarely breaking a sweat. Then one of my coworkers, a favorite of the store manager, told me that the boss regarded me as a “lemon.” My coworker’s advice — try to finish my jobs quickly and ask for more to do. The result was that I not only became a favorite of the new assistant manager, who eventually replaced the old boss, but I also stopped dreading my time at work, and started enjoying the job more.
In my schoolwork, I had a similar sequence of experiences. After doing as little as possible during high school, I began a lackluster career as a student at the local community college, aiming to pull a “Gentleman’s C” and studying just enough to keep me from being expelled. If you aim for a C average, sometimes you fall short, of course. I earned Ds in my first two psychology courses, for example. But then, perhaps owing to the threat of being sent off to Vietnam if I lost my student deferment, I started actually reading for my classes, and aiming for straight As. An unintended side-effect: I started to absolutely love the academic life, so much so that, now, almost five decades later, I have never left the college environment.
The research evidence on effort and job satisfaction
Of course, as an academic and a researcher, I should be the first to realize that a selective search through the details of one particular case, my own, can be misleading in terms of drawing any causal conclusions. So I went digging for relevant evidence in the library (which in this day and age means logging onto my university library’s journal access page). And I found out that organizational psychologists have done a lot of illuminating work on the links between job effort, job performance, and job satisfaction.
When a psychologist wants a summary of the research literature on any given topic, he or she hopes that someone has written a paper in Psychological Bulletin, a journal that publishes extensive summaries of all the previous literature on the topic. Happily, I found that Timothy Judge and his colleagues had in fact published a paper there called “The job satisfaction-job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review.” They were able to find 312 different research samples, including a total of 54,417 subjects, in which the link between job performance and job satisfaction had been measured. Although there was some inconsistency across the different studies, their general conclusion was: Yes, there is indeed a solid positive correlation between how well a person performs a job and how satisfied they are with that job. They also noted that the correlation could be the result of several possible relationships. Having a good attitude toward your work might cause you to work harder, for example, or working harder might, conversely, cause you to like your job more.
It is easy to see why a good attitude about the job might lead to hard work, but at first blush, the reverse might seem counterintuitive — that harder work could lead to greater job enjoyment. As Steven Brown and Robert Peterson noted in another paper on the topic, some classical models of organizational psychology conceptualized work as a means to an end. To the extent that people view work in such instrumental ways, the less hard work it takes to get your paycheck, the happier you will be. On that view, the relationship between job performance and job satisfaction would follow to the extent that harder work led to better job performance, which in turn led to bigger paychecks. But Brown and Peterson also noted an alternative possibility: “that exertion of effort in the work itself provides fulfillment of people's intrinsic needs to be competent, effective, and self-determining, and hence contributes to job satisfaction independently of performance outcomes.” They linked that viewpoint to several classical psychological theories of intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; White, 1959).
Brown and Peterson’s own research supported the intrinsic motivation perspective: They found that salespeople who expended more effort on the job were more satisfied with their jobs, above and beyond the effect of their efforts on their performance outcomes. To be sure the link wasn’t peculiar to the sales context, Brown and Peterson conducted a meta-analysis of 11 other studies, which revealed a similar relationship holding across several different occupations.
Why is working harder linked to greater job satisfaction?
There are several possible explanations for the link between hard work and job enjoyment. One traces back to the classic work on cognitive dissonance, such as Aronson and Mills’ finding that people rated groups more highly when those people had to undergo a severe and embarrassing initiation to join the group. On this view, I would feel foolish and inconsistent if I was working so hard at something meaningless, so I need to convince myself that the job is meaningful to justify all my effort.
Another possibility comes from the theories of intrinsic motivation — we are designed to enjoy working as an end in itself. That might seem hard to understand from an evolutionary perspective: Why wouldn’t we be designed to conserve calories and laze around as much as possible? Intrinsic motivation theorists might answer that our ancestors who enjoyed working were more likely to solve important problems and generate resources to carry them through difficult times. And those who solved problems and generated resources would also have been more attractive as potential mates. The proximate goal — the felt satisfaction from working — would thus link to deeper ultimate goals, generating resources and status, and acquiring mates. Of course, we need not be consciously in touch with that linkage for it to work (people who are hard at work don’t need to say to themselves “I am enjoying work because it will enhance my survival and reproduction” any more than people who are enjoying sex or eating a good meal need to link those pleasures to their ultimate functions). All we need to know is that it just feels good to eat, love, and work.
The bottom line on lazing off
Am I suggesting: Go forth and work your fingers to the bone, for a minimum of 60 hours a week? No. As Freud noted, a satisfying life comes from a blending of love and work, and there are many pleasures to be had (and adaptive advantages to be gained) by spending time relaxing around those you love. During our extended vacation, my son and I got to know one another better, and I came to appreciate him in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. But I would say this: We get more enjoyment from work when we strive to do more than just get by, when we focus our best efforts on the job, and when we put aside sufficient time to really concentrate on our goals. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi has observed that even factory workers enjoy their jobs a lot more when they focus intensely on the job, and let themselves get into the “flow” of the task they are working.
Those who take intrinsic pleasure from doing their work are a lot more likely to produce good results, and thus achieve more instrumental rewards than those who simply see their work as an annoying means to a financial end.
Of course, the same logic applies to the time you spend with those you love — better to focus intensely on your relationships when you are at home, which reminds me, finding out about intrinsic motivation and hard work has been fun, but I gotta go play with my son!
Eric Kandel: Nobel Prize-winner and regular guy.
Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1959). The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-81.
Brown, S. P., & Peterson, R. A. (1994). The effect of effort on sales performance and job satisfaction. The Journal of Marketing, 70-80.
Deci, E.L., Ryan, R.M. (1985), Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Judge, T. A., Thoresen, C. J., Bono, J. E., & Patton, G. K. (2001). The job satisfaction–job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review. Psychological bulletin, 127(3), 376.
White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297- 333.