Miserable at Work?

Recently, while reviewing some landmark research on what motivates human beings (Deci, 2000), I was surprised with one of the points that the researchers discovered: We don’t naturally pursue the things that are best for us. Basically, humans have some basic psychological needs that are just part of who we are, and when our environment supports those basic needs, it promotes psychological well-being. And when our environment doesn’t support those basic needs (and it must be all 3), then it promotes just the opposite: psychological ill-health. So you would think that when our environment isn’t supporting our well-being, we would naturally change the environment or go somewhere else in order to meet our needs. But what we’ve found out is that we don’t usually do that.

It turns out that people in an environment that does not support psychological well-being, normally don’t reject the environment, but stay, and develop coping strategies or mechanisms to somehow delay, deflect or defend from ill-health. These strategies often end-up causing additional harm to our psychological well-being and we end up making things worse for ourselves, and others. Ah, now I understand the workplace better. At work, these strategies look like disengagement, passive-aggressiveness, “will do only what I am told to do” and other familiar behaviors.

It’s funny, because I often wonder why people “take it” at work. There are some great work places, I know, but there are also some very caustic work environments, and I am amazed that people don’t leave. But now it’s more apparent that we aren’t necessarily driven by our psychological needs, as researchers once thought we were. Yes, we have innate needs, but those needs don’t drive us. We still have a choice. Look at people that reject relationships and die of loneliness; reject nourishment and starve to death; reject safety and sit peacefully while aflame in a town square.

People have choices. But it’s that very fact that amazes me. If we have choices, then why do we so often choose those things that are so poor for us?

Often, we simply have the wrong notion of what will really bring us happiness, or fulfilling reward (Sheldon et al., 2009). It’s been demonstrated that people that pursue happiness from external sources, like job positions, money, approval from others, etc. are less happy to begin with, and even less happier in the long-run. Yet people who find their rewards from inside themselves derive not only much greater satisfaction, but greater happiness and social well-being. Yet, we still “take it” at work. Often, our thinking leads us to believe that the income we make will somehow make-up for the deficit we feel inside when our basic psychological needs are not met. Or if we just stick with it, then the promotion we’ll get (and I would venture to guess that rarely occurs anyway) will somehow justify it all, and we will see that it was all worth it.

I remember, years ago, electing to try out for a team that had to endure great hardships in their practice and training in order to not only make the team, but to maintain team membership. We found out, significantly, that the difference between those who made it and those who did not, largely came down to the individual reasons people wanted to be on the team in the first place. Those who were looking to prove something to others, or to win the approbation of strangers, or who wanted to be able to say that they were the on the best team, never made the team. Those who were trying to prove something to themselves, who wanted to be able to look themselves in the eye, who relied on inner strength and satisfaction from deep within, they made it. It was all about heart. Or should we say, all about what is in the heart.

Maybe you’ve heard of “future-self”? There may be more “selves” than you think about (Markus, 1986). Future-self is the ‘you’ of the future. Not ‘you’ now, but ‘you’ later on. Cultivating the ability to project yourself out to see how you would like the consequences of current choices, is thinking about, or with, your “future-self”. People often think of only current-self, and future-self suffers as a result. Others are so protective of future-self that their current-self suffers beyond reason. Learning to strike a balance is important, and learning true sources of happiness, both now and in the future, is critical to well-being.

Don’t overestimate the rewards of money, popularity, position or power. Work may not be worth it if you have to deny yourself in order to earn money. Growing, developing, progressing, learning and improving; serving, giving, loving and caring; identifying our highest priorities, deepest values, natural skills and talents – all contribute to rewards and great satisfaction that come from within. All require a bit of sacrifice now from “current-self”, and pay off greatly for “future-self”. And such pursuits can help us meet our basic psychological needs of relatedness, autonomy and competence (Deci, 2000).

Spend a little time on yourself now, figuring out who you are becoming ‘later’, and build the relationship with self that will allow you to stay true to your principles, create an environment that supports well-being and promotes that happiness that we all deserve in life. It’s largely up to you.


DECI, E. L. R., RICHARD M. 2000. The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychologial Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

MARKUS, H. N., PAULA 1986. Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

SHELDON, K. M., ABAD, N., FERGUSON, Y., GUNZ, A., HOUSER-MARKO, L., NICHOLS, C. P. & LYUBOMIRSKY, S. 2009. Persistent pursuit of need-satisfying goals leads to increased happiness: A 6-month experimental longitudinal study.Motivation and Emotion, 34, 39-48.


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