5 Things You Think Will Make You Happier at Work (But Really Won’t)

Life would be better with more money, more time off, and more meaningful work, wouldn't it? Well, maybe not.

“If only …”

If only you had a bigger salary, a nicer boss, a more flexible schedule.

Then you’d love your job! In fact, you’d practically bounce into the office on Monday morning and have to drag yourself away from your desk on Friday night.

Or so you might think.

But if you’re convinced that a few minor tweaks would turn your ho-hum nine-to-five into your dream job, recent research shows, you very well might be mistaken. Here, we show you five common things we all believe would make our professional lives infinitely better, but that simply may not deliver the boost we expect. Plus, what positive psychologists and behavioral economists have found really will make you feel more positive about your work.

1. The So-Called Happiness Boost: A Shorter Workweek

Why you think it will make you happier: Who doesn’t think that the solution to workplace happiness is working fewer hours? In recent research that LearnVest did, a full two-thirds of respondents said they’d prefer a four-day workweek. Spending less time at work means having more time to devote to the activities that really make you happy. You can hang out more with your family and friends, participate in your hobbies, get more exercise and blessed sleep—or so you believe.

Why it doesn’t always work: It turns out people aren’t very good at using their newly freed-up time on happiness-boosting activities. A recent study in the Journal of Happiness Science reported on an experiment that occurred when South Korea reduced its workweek from 44 hours per week to 40 hours a week. And employees could only work five days instead of six. (We know, we know.) The result: Worker hours decreased by about 10%, but self-reported job satisfaction and life satisfaction didn’t budge. Translation: A happier worker isn’t always the one who works fewer hours in a week.

2. The So-Called Happiness Boost: More Vacation Time

Why you think it will make you happier: You already cherish your time off, so having more of it seems like just what the doctor ordered. Maybe that way you could replace a few desk-bound days with the ski trip or yoga retreat you can never find time to take. In fact, maybe an extra week would put an end to “vacation math”—trying to figure out how you’re going to squeeze in all the trips you want to take with the days you have left—altogether!

Related: 7 Telltale Signs It May Be Time to Leave Your Job

Why it doesn’t always work: A recent article in the Atlantic compared the number of vacation days in the U.S. with those in similar countries and found that many of our European neighbors, from Austria to Switzerland, had at least 20 legally mandated paid vacation days—while the U.S. has zero. In fact, workers in France clocked in with a full 30. However, here’s the rub: People who live in countries with more vacation days aren’t necessarily … happier. 73% of Americans report job satisfaction, whereas only 57% of Italians, who receive 20 paid vacation days and 11 paid holidays per year, are happy with their jobs, according to a survey by workplace research firm Randstad.

What’s more, experts say it’s how you spend your time, not how much time off you have, that really makes us happier. The secret, according to a 2010 study by researchers at Harvard, is being engaged in whatever you’re doing in that moment. In fact, they found that at any given moment, 46.9% of us are thinking about the past or the future, instead of where we are in the present. So the next time you get a week, or a mere afternoon off, the trick to greater bliss is to devote your whole self to the time you have, whether it’s spent climbing a mountain, booking a yoga class or just sipping a frothy latte at your favorite cafe.

3. The So-Called Happiness Boost: A Promotion or Raise

Why you think it will make you happier: Gaining a better title will earn you more respect at work and in the world at large, right? And we all perpetually covet a boost in pay to afford whatever luxuries are currently on our Just Out of Reach list, be it a gorgeous winter coat or newly renovated kitchen.

Why it doesn’t always work: While at LearnVest we’re fans of asking for what you’re worth and using extra income to reach your goals, always jonesing for that next pay raise can be a slippery slope. “Our brain adapts really quickly,” says Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, in regard to how we perceive that new figure on our paycheck. “We set goals because we believe we will be happy when we achieve them. But as soon as we do, our brain changes the goalposts of the success.”

The solution? First, know that even doubling your salary wouldn’t double your joy. In fact, in a recent study, people whose salaries did make that seismic leap reported only being 9% happier overall. According to the researchers in that study, the key to boosting your well-being is actually three things: under-indulging, investing in experiences instead of things, and giving to others. Here’s why those three approaches work better than waiting for your next bump.

4. The So-Called Happiness Boost: A New Job

Why you think it will make you happier: You swear that your current gig is single-handedly the thing bringing you down, and you dream of telling your boss to “take this job and shove it.” Then, or so the fantasy goes, you’d never have to deal with the horrible commute again. You’d never waste another minute in another pointless meeting. You’d get a shiny new job and it would be everything that your old job wasn’t, with the “new is always better” rule in full effect.

Related: Does Flex Time Stifle Women?

Why it doesn’t always work: This one is tough: Maybe you are over your job. Maybe it is time to move on—and here are the seven telltale signs you might need to. But there are also plenty of times that it’s not necessarily the gig itself, but your attitude toward it that’s holding you back. Before you throw in the towel, try this happiness-boosting trick: “We can train our brains to be grateful and appreciative of the environment that we’re in, and to find ways to improve it,” says Gielan.

Her prescription: Every morning for the next 21 days, write down three benefits from your job. It could be something like what the salary affords you (your gorgeous home) or someone it allows you to connect with (the friendly barista who makes your latte each morning). This exercise, she says, “makes our brains focus on the positive instead of going to the problems and complaints.”

5. The So-Called Happiness Boost: “More Meaningful” Work

Why you think it will make you happier: “As human beings, we want to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of A Happy You. That’s why people fantasize about ditching their corporate jobs to volunteer overseas or teach in a struggling classroom. We dream of curing cancer or climbing mountains, and think, without that, our work lacks import.

Why it doesn’t always work: When Dan Ariely, a leader in the field of behavioral economics, conducted a study to explore what makes people find meaning in their work, the outcome truly surprised him. In one experiment, he asked subjects to build sculptures out of Legos for $3 apiece. Then, he gradually lowered the price he would pay them for making the same creations. Surprisingly, his participants kept on toiling as the price they were paid got steadily lower.

Then Ariely introduced a game-changer: He offered the participants the same $3 per Lego creation, but he and his team dismantled what his subjects had created before asking the participant to build the next. The rub? When they saw that no one would ever see what they’d built, the participants became depressed, and, even for the same payment, created fewer sculptures. The meaning you can extract, says Ariely, in this TED presentation, is simple: It doesn’t matter what you’re doing—whether washing a floor, designing a car or isolating a gene, what gives us a sense of purpose and keeps us motivated at work is receiving recognition of our efforts. If your job doesn’t give you that, then it may be time to strike out, or at least look for a new manager.

Rebecca Webber is a journalist based in New York City. She writes about work and money; health and psychology; and news and trends. Follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared in Learnvest and was reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Vivek Jena]