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“Most people climb the ladder of success only to realize it was leaning against the wrong building.” –Stephen Covey

Several years ago I had a shot at what I thought was my dream job. My life’s passion was leadership and I loved the mission—so it seemed like a great opportunity.

Not only did the job not make me happy—I was miserable after only a few months.

What happened?

When I finally decided to leave the job a year later, my emotions fluctuated wildly. Was I just too weak to lead at that level? Or was I taking charge of my life by making the choice to stop doing something I didn’t like?

Some well-intentioned colleagues even told me my decision was perhaps “career suicide” or “would send the wrong message” to the top brass.

Ironically, within a few hours of announcing that I was leaving, I received another potentially bigger offer. I briefly wrestled with it, then declined—realizing that the new prospect would have most of the same things I disliked about my current situation.

Until this time in my life, I had pretty much taken every opportunity I had been offered—so this was a big change for me.

The 5 Most Common Happiness Traps at Work

Apparently, the mistakes I’d made were not uncommon.

Annie McKee is a best-selling author and writer for Harvard Business Review. She has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and is a coach to executives from Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her latest book is How to Be Happy at Work.

McKee explains five common happiness traps people fall into at work. Let’s look at which ones applied to my situation…

The Overwork Trap

Even people who love their work are prone to burnout if they work too much. With access to smartphones and laptops, many leaders simply cannot shut off. This certainly applied to me. Before I knew it, all I could think about was work. The status of hyper-work is potently addictive. If I was that busy, I must be important right? This was not healthy, and during this season I was not investing nearly enough time in the other important areas of my life like friendship, family, or faith.

The Should Trap

I’m embarrassed to say I’ve lived much of my life searching for validation in the workplace. Therefore, when I was offered a promotion, I simply felt I should take it—no questions asked. Furthermore, I felt I should stay in a job I didn’t like, for fear of being viewed a weak. I was making these decisions based on how I thought other people would view me instead of making them based on what I truly wanted. I was also working more than I wanted to simply because I felt cultural pressure to always be available.

The Ambition Trap

I naively assumed that a promotion was almost always a good thing. But I failed to accurately predict the tradeoffs I would make for my quality of life. I had achieved what I thought was an important life goal, but my happiness plummeted. McKee says that people can often get derailed by the constant focus on achievement. Some leaders even step on others as they climb the corporate ladder, which harms their primary source of joy in life—relationships.

The Money Trap

We all need compensation that covers our essential needs, but I can’t tell you how many people I know that have taken a job that wrecks their life for 5-10% more pay. Most people never consider the option of cutting their lifestyle by 5-10% to hold on to their happiness and their time. Admittedly—in my example—I was initially enticed by the thought of a little more pay and retirement, but ultimately decided it was not worth the price I was paying for it.

The Helplessness Trap

Many people decide there is nothing they can do to change their situation. McKee warns that this mindset is soul destroying. Blaming a boss or organization rarely leads to anything good. This perspective usually results in depression, health issues, and a host of other problems. If you are currently feeling stuck, begin generating a list of ways you could respond—set a boundary with a boss, ask for projects that fit your strengths, or give your resume an overhaul. Then try one.

3 things nearly everyone wants from work

Now that we understand what often leads to unhappiness with work—what does make people happy with their jobs?

Research on self-determination theory by celebrated psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan helps explain the answer.

In his outstanding book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us—Daniel Pink does a masterful job summarizing the research.

Pink convincingly argues that most people want three things from work—Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

  • Autonomy—We want the freedom to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery—We want to excel at skills that matter.
  • Purpose—We yearn to serve a purpose greater than ourselves.

When you read these, don’t you instinctively resonate with them?

Pink says that many modern jobs are using motivational strategies that are badly outdated by about 50 years in understanding human motivation. Change in the workplace is slow.

Here is just one of many compelling examples he provides in his book…

Would anyone have predicted that Wikipedia—an organization that provides free content written almost exclusively by unpaid volunteers—would render the for-profit Microsoft Encarta extinct in just 8 years?

This example completely short circuits the idea that people only work for better pay and benefits (i.e. carrots and sticks).

Wikipedia provides a phenomenal example of how motivated people can be when they are doing something they love and have control over how and when they do it.

In conclusion, Pink differentiates between Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators (such as rewards and punishments) may garner compliance and performance in the short term, but intrinsically motivated people almost always outperform them in the long run—and have much deeper commitment to the work.

Use this research in your own job hunt, or with your team

  1. How can you give your team greater control over their projects and schedules?
  2. How can you create more professional growth opportunities for your team to gain mastery?
  3. How can you help your team more clearly see the purpose in their work?
  4. When you consider new job opportunities, consider whether they might give you more autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources

  1. Forbes—5 Happiness Traps
  2. Daniel Pink—Drive
  3. Self-determination theory—



Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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