(Fortune) — Dear Annie: Please settle an argument. My husband has a management job that was stressful enough before the recession but, over the past year and a half, has gotten much worse. He is obviously miserable, and I think he should look for another position — even in this rotten job market — before his current situation damages his health and his career.
He, on the other hand, has what I would call a “suck it up, cowboy” attitude. He says it doesn’t matter whether he’s happy in his work or not, because it is a “good” job that allows him to support his family (we have three young children) and that is the most important thing, especially with the economy as it is now. What do you think? — Worrying in Washington
Dear W.W.: Your question couldn’t be timelier. Employee satisfaction is at its lowest level in 22 years, according to a recent survey by the Conference Board: Fewer than half of the full-time employees polled say they enjoy their work. Of course, they’re likely to get scant sympathy from the millions of Americans who are desperate to find any work at all.
Yet there is convincing evidence that happiness at work, or the lack of it, has a measurable impact both on overall satisfaction with life and on the success of people’s careers.
“Happiness does matter from both an individual viewpoint and in terms of business sustainability,” says Jessica Pryce-Jones, the author of a fascinating new book called Happiness at Work: Maximizing Your Psychological Capital for Success (Wiley-Blackwell, $24.95), based on her many years of consulting and coaching experience, as well as a five-year in-depth study of 3,000 employees.
“If you’re really happy at work, you’ll be 180% happier with life overall, have 180% more energy, and be at least 50% more productive than your least happy colleagues,” says Pryce-Jones, who also is CEO of iOpener, an HR consulting firm based in Oxford, England.
The extra energy and productivity that springs from liking what you do can propel your career forward in ways that wallowing in negativity never will; and being 180% happier with life in general is just, well, a terrific bonus.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy employees tend to be happy for more or less the same reasons, while each dissatisfied worker is unhappy in his or her own way. So, to address as many varieties of misery as possible, Pryce-Jones packed her book with case studies. She also devised an interactive quiz, (available on iOpener’s Web site for free until the end of April), to give specific advice based on the reader’s answers to 75 questions.
Anyone who wants to be happier on the job might also take a good look at Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful — No Matter What (McGraw-Hill, 22.95). The author, Srikumar S. Rao, Ph.D. (www.srikumarsrao.com), bases his approach on a wildly popular course called Creativity and Personal Mastery he has taught at Columbia Business School, Northwestern’s Kellogg School, Berkeley’s Haas School, and elsewhere.
Rao’s basic premise: Happiness comes from within, and anyone can learn to generate it by examining, and then changing, thought patterns that get in the way. His book tells how to transform a miserable job into one that is truly enjoyable. The process begins with identifying what there is about one’s current situation that does give rise to happiness, and then gradually expanding on that until the good far outweighs the bad.
But to get back to your question: You may not be able to persuade your husband to look for ways to be happier at work, since he doesn’t think it matters whether he is or not. But as his spouse, you can certainly help him cope with the stress he’s under — before, as you say, it harms his health.
Dr. Terri Orbuch, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, runs the Early Years of Marriage Project. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, it’s the longest-running study of marriage ever conducted, following 373 couples since 1986.
Orbuch distilled the results of that research in a new book, 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great (Random House, $26). One of her key findings: “Happy couples talk about what happens at work, even if it’s ‘boring’ or unpleasant,” she says. “For years, the conventional wisdom was, ‘Leave work at work!’ But it’s a huge part of your spouse’s world, so why not make an effort to understand what’s happening there?” Just allowing him to vent — without chiming in with urgings to get another job — may ease a lot of the pressure he’s feeling.
“You can also try exercising together, maybe by taking a long walk two or three times a week,” Orbuch adds. “Exercise is a tremendous stress reliever.” True.