How the Power-Happiness Connection Matters at Work

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By Janet Choi

People who feel powerful are happier, according to a recent study published in Psychological Science.

Researchers found that authenticity is what connects that relationship between power and “subjective well-being” (happiness, basically). When you have power, your behavior can align more closely with your desires and values so that you are free to be more authentic. And when you can go about your day being more true to yourself, you feel happier.

“[B]y leading people to be true to their desires and inclinations — to be authentic — power leads individuals to experience greater happiness,” the study authors note. What’s especially interesting is that dispositional power, or your sense of power, is a strong predictor of happiness, so your perception matters.


An Epidemic of Powerlessness

Compared to contexts such as friendships and romantic relationships, the power-happiness connection stands out in the workplace. This makes sense, as the researchers note, since workplaces are generally based on hierarchical structures and more pronounced power dynamics. For example, powerful employees were 26% more satisfied with their work than powerless employees, while powerful friends were 11% more satisfied in their friendships than powerless friends.

If you’ve ever had a job that made you feel miserable — from sheer boredom, workplace abuse, having to stay in the office with nothing to do, or having to stay in the office with way too much to do — you are probably familiar with the feeling of powerlessness over the situation. Unfortunately, that kind of misery and disillusionment is startlingly common, with 70% of workers who were “not engaged” or even “actively disengaged” in their work, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.

Wield Power for Good

That sheer amount of disconnection is distressing, not just because it results in decreased productivity but because it means that all too often in life, work is some kind of dementor, draining people of their happiness and souls.

someecards.com - Our office reminds me of The Avengers if the Avengers joined forces every day to do battle against happiness.

Understanding the relationship between power, authenticity, and happiness —  which dovetails with self-determination theory and how autonomy is a necessary ingredient for intrinsic motivation — can help transform how we approach work.

This burden mostly falls to the people with all the power to transform things in the first place. If you’re a leader, you may have to consider how you wield all that power in order to increase happiness among your team and see this as part of your job. Although the study shows how power is key to authentic self-fulfillment, many leaders, new and experienced, may not feel all that authentic or comfortable about how to wield it.

We can turn to Lauren Bacon’s insightful post about making peace with your power in order to better serve your team and be a better leader:

When you’re in charge of a team, and you have the authority to hire and fire people – and the responsibility to keep the team functioning at high capacity, and meet payroll – you do have power, and you’re not doing anybody any favours by pretending you don’t.

Acknowledge that power, center yourself in it, find your own way to exercise it appropriately, and things will get a whole lot more comfortable.

Making peace with your power involves “gaining enough confidence in your own leadership to encourage leadership and autonomy among those who work with (and for) you.” So, wielding power with purpose means realizing that your employees are neither your work zombies or buddies, that you’re the one holding most of the keys to unlocking their power, happiness, and yes, productivity.

Battle Powerlessness

For those of you who feel powerless at work, it’s a tough battle. Brainstorm some ways you can gain a sense of control and autonomy. Ask if you can be in charge of a minor project, lead some presentations, or start a new initiative. Round up some research on productivity to argue for a more flexible schedule. Go over and around supervisors and bosses who are overbearing or dismissive to someone (with power) who will listen to how you feel and what you want to do.

If you’re planning on sticking around, fight for your small corner by finding a path toward authenticity, autonomy, and power, and fulfillment. To thine own self, be a little truer.

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Photo: Jessica Tam


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