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Flourishing at Work and Flourishing in Life

How work and other aspects of life affect one another.

Key points

  • Wellbeing in life affects wellbeing at work and vice versa, but life satisfaction generally has a greater impact on job satisfaction.
  • The direction of causality between work and life varies in different wellbeing domains, such as meaning, purpose, depression and relationships.
  • Work can contribute to wellbeing. Organizational- and group- level workplace practices can help employees thrive.

Our work and the other aspects of our lives are intertwined in various ways. While this has always been the case, it has perhaps become even more so during the present Covid-19 pandemic. Many are working from home or working more flexible hours, with work tasks often interwoven with home and family tasks. What happens at work may be brought into home life. What happens amongst friends and family, or our very understanding of the role of work itself, may affect how we feel about work and what we do at work. Wellbeing at work may affect wellbeing in life, and vice versa.

It has in fact long been known that job satisfaction and life satisfaction are strongly correlated, but there has been debate as to whether that is principally because job satisfaction contributes to life satisfaction, or rather whether life satisfaction, in general, tends to “spill over,” making one more satisfied with one’s job. The majority of the evidence, from a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies, suggests that while there may be an effect in both directions, the effect of life satisfaction on job satisfaction appears to be larger than the effect of job satisfaction on life satisfaction. There is spillover from being satisfied with life into being satisfied with one’s job.

But life satisfaction is only one aspect of flourishing. We might wonder whether we see similar patterns not just with life satisfaction, but with feeling happy, or with social relationships, or with feeling depressed, or with having a sense of meaning and purpose at work versus in life. It is possible that the relationships between wellbeing at work and wellbeing in life might vary across these different domains of wellbeing. In a recent empirical study, we set out to try to examine evidence for how these relationships might play out across different domains of flourishing.

Wellbeing and Work
Source: Eroyka/AdobeSpark

Looking at Wellbeing Over Time

To be able to answer these sorts of questions, one needs longitudinal data. As we’ve pointed out in prior short pieces summarizing some important principles of causal inference, one needs data on the same set of individuals over multiple time points. Cross-sectional studies, in which all of the data is collected at once, will, in general, be worthless in addressing these questions. With cross-sectional data, if we find that life satisfaction and job satisfaction are correlated, there is absolutely no way to tell if that is because job satisfaction causes life satisfaction, or if life satisfaction causes job satisfaction, or both.

What we need again is data over time to examine how job satisfaction at one time-point might predict life satisfaction at a subsequent time-point, controlling for baseline life satisfaction, as well as a host of potential confounding variables; and then doing something similar in the other direction. Such evidence isn’t necessarily definitive, but it is a step closer to what we need to discern the direction of causality. And we can take a similar approach not only for job/life satisfaction but for other aspects of wellbeing also, such as meaning in life versus meaning at work, or relationships in life versus relationships at work.

Together with our colleagues at the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE), we recently published a study using data on 954 employees at factories in Mexico, examining wellbeing in life and wellbeing at work at two different time-points to evaluate the relevant evidence. In addition to using the longitudinal design described above, we also controlled for a number of other social, demographic, and job-related characteristics. We examined wellbeing across a number of different domains including life/job satisfaction, happiness, meaning, purpose, depression, and social relationships.

Directions of Causality Vary Across Different Aspects of Wellbeing

The results were striking because the evidence suggested that the direction of causality was rather different across these domains. For some aspects of wellbeing, the evidence suggested that relationships were indeed reciprocal, including happiness at work and happiness in life, or job satisfaction and life satisfaction (though again consistent with prior evidence, we found stronger estimated effects for life satisfaction on job satisfaction than for the reverse). For one’s sense of purpose and for social relationships, however, there was evidence that wellbeing at work had a much more pronounced effect on wellbeing in life than vice versa. The purpose one found in work subsequently promoted a sense of general life purpose, while social connectedness at work contributed subsequently to a richer sense of social connectedness in life.

However, for other aspects of wellbeing, the effects seemed to operate in the reverse direction: Being depressed in life led to a sense of depression at work, but the reverse was not the case. Likewise, having a sense of meaning in life subsequently contributed to a sense of meaning at work, but not vice versa. This last result is perhaps particularly striking because the causal effects appeared to operate in different directions for meaning versus purpose.

Those two terms – meaning and purpose – are often used interchangeably, but as we’ve discussed elsewhere, and as is now commonly done within psychology and within philosophy, the two can be distinguished. Purpose is more end-directed, whereas meaning is more about an understanding of the broader context of things. In terms of the pursuit of ends and goals, purpose at work gives rise to a sense of purpose in life. However, with regard to meaning, the evidence here suggests that finding one’s life and activities worthwhile is what more profoundly contributes to an understanding of meaning in one’s work, while feeling one’s work is meaningful doesn’t necessarily give one what one needs to find meaning in one’s life activities more generally.

The Future of Work

Though work and the rest of life can profoundly shape one another for the better, tensions between these domains are also sadly all too common. Understanding and addressing these potential conflicts were key aims of our recent virtual symposium on the future of work.

A theme threaded through the symposium’s papers was the importance of keeping the whole of a worker’s life in view when considering economic structures and workplace policies. Russell Hittinger, a theologian and member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, highlighted Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on the principle of “subsidiarity,” and discussed belonging to communities other than the state, and the role of “three necessary societies” (the family, the polity, and the church), each with its distinctive role to play in human flourishing, and each owing “help (subsidium)” and proper deference to the others. Sociologist Laurie DeRose argued that a culture of “workism” seems to be an important factor in driving down birth rates across the developed world. One of our great cultural challenges today lies in preventing the workplace from overwhelming the goods of family life in particular.

Promoting Wellbeing at Work and in Life

How can the workplace better contribute to employee’s overall well-being, and to the wellbeing of their families? We’ve commented previously on how work itself contributes to wellbeing, and how supportive employment programs can help even those with considerable impairments to find work and potentially enhance wellbeing. We’ve also commented on how employee activities like job-crafting – finding meaning at work and in relationships, and seeking more efficient ways to work – can enhance work engagement and wellbeing.

However, managers can also implement group- or even organization-level changes to help employees thrive. This too has been a topic of increasingly rigorous studies. The Work, Family, and Health Study was a randomized trial to promote family-supportive supervisory behaviors and employee control over work location and schedule. It was conducted among both 1,000 information technology professionals and 700 long-term healthcare facility workers and found to have important effects on employee wellbeing, on adequacy of sleep, on control over schedule, and on better and more family time, and it accomplished this without reducing total work hours or increasing job demands. Some of our colleagues at Harvard have likewise also recently completed a systematic review of organizational- and group-level interventions that potentially enhance various dimensions of worker wellbeing.

Workers and their employers ought to be a source of mutual benefit. Workplaces should be one of the communities within society that have relations of aid and assistance with individuals and with other communities. The workers help to create their employers’ goods and services that are of benefit to society, and the employers offer wages to support workers and their families. However, an increasingly large body of research makes clear that more could be done to promote wellbeing at work, to improve family-supportive practices, and to enhance greater meaning in work and of more meaningful relationships.

The true purpose of work is the promotion of human flourishing, through the achieving of human potential, and through the meeting of the needs and aspirations of mankind by the goods and services produced. Workers and workplaces ought ultimately to be aligned in this vision. Improving wellbeing in life will improve wellbeing at work, contributing to the productivity and wellbeing of workers and society alike.

Tyler J. VanderWeele, Director

Human Flourishing Program

Harvard University


Weziak-Bialowolska, D., Bialowolski, P., Sacco, P.L., VanderWeele, T.J., and McNeely, E. (2020). Well-being in life and well-being at work: which comes first? Evidence from a longitudinal study. Frontiers in Public Health, 8:103.

A recording of the Work and Well-Being in 21st Century America symposium:

The Work, Family, and Health Study's toolkits for workplace change:

The Work and Wellbeing Initiative's employer toolkit resources: