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Csikszentmihalyi encourages us to reach a state in which work is an extension of what we naturally want to do. Immersed in the pleasure of work, we don't worry about its ultimate reward. The Dalai Lama, for example, sums up his life's work this way: "I do nothing." His work and his life are the same. If that sounds out of reach, take heart. You may soon get some encouragement from the head office. A growing body of research is demonstrating that happy workers not only are happier in life but are also crucial to the health of a company.
Thirty-five years ago, the Gallup Organization started researching why people in certain work groups, even within the same company, were so much more effective than others. Donald Clifton, the Gallup researcher who pioneered that work, conducted a series of extensive interviews with highly productive teams of workers. From those interviews, Gallup developed a set of 12 statements designed to measure employees' overall level of happiness with their work, which Gallup calls "engagement." Some of the criteria reflect the obvious requirements of any worker (Do you have what you need to do your job? Do you know what's expected of you at work?), while others reveal more subtle variables (Do you have a best friend at work? Does your supervisor or someone else at work care about you as a person?). Gallup started the survey in 1998, and it now includes 5.4 million employees at 474 organizations; Gallup also does periodic random polls of workers in different countries.
The polls paint a picture of a rather disaffected U.S. work force. In the most recent poll, from September 2004, only 29% of workers said they were engaged with their work. More than half, 55%, were not engaged, and 16% were actively disengaged. Still, those numbers are better than in many other countries. The percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. is more than twice as large as Germany's and three times as great as Singapore's. But neither the late 1990s boom nor the subsequent bust had much impact in either direction, indicating that the state of worker happiness goes much deeper than the swings of the economy.
James Harter, a psychologist directing that research at Gallup, says many companies are simply misreading what makes people happy at work. Beyond a certain minimum level, it isn't pay or benefits; it's strong relationships with co-workers and a supportive boss. "These are basic human needs in the workplace, but they're not the ones thought by managers to be very important," Harter says. Gallup has found that a strong positive response to the statement "I have a best friend at work," for example, is a powerful predictor for engagement at work and is correlated with profitability and connection with customers. "It indicates a high level of belonging," Harter says.
Without it, a job that looks good on paper can make a worker miserable. Martina Radix, 41, traded a high-pressure job as an executive assistant at a company where she liked her colleagues for a less taxing position as a clerical worker in a law firm six years ago. She has more time and flexibility but feels stifled by her co-workers and unappreciated by her boss. "I am a misfit in that department," she says. "No matter how good your personal life is, if you go in to a bad atmosphere at work, it takes away from it."