While some believe that business success leads to happiness, it is more accurate to say that happiness leads to business success. Positive psychology expert, Shawn Achor, writes that when employees are happier, their sales increase by 37%, productivity by 31%, and revenues increase by 50% (Harvard Business Review, 2011). There are several factors that can impact happiness at work, including the level of autonomy and choice embedded into the job; the opportunity to engage in tasks that vary, are challenging, and are significant; and receiving positive social support, amongst other environmental and cultural factors. Thus, employers should cultivate a work culture that promotes happiness and employees should look for ways to boost their own happiness and job satisfaction.
Shemaiah’s advice in Pirkei Avot bears out this wisdom.
Shemaiah and Avtalion received from them. Shemaiah used to say: love work (ehov et ha-melacha), hate acting the superior (u-senah et ha-rabanut), and do not attempt to draw near to the ruling authority (ve-al titvadeh le-rashut).
Minimally, this message denounces idleness and self-imposed poverty. Working to support oneself and family is vital. Those without a source of income, Rashi contends, will be forced to steal to obtain their necessities. Meiri argues that regardless of monetary concerns, a person should still work for the sake of being productive and active. Idleness, as Bartenura notes based on the Talmud, leads to mental health challenges. On a more positive note, Mili DeAvot comments that employment provides us the opportunity to fulfill various work-related mitzvot and brings “wealth to the body and the soul.”
Rabbi Menachem Mordechai Frankel Teumim, in his commentary Be’er HaAvot, notes three benefits to loving work. First, instead of the burden and burn out people often feel at work, if we love work, it will give us added energy and motivation. Second, the positivity will help us gain pleasure and happiness by admiring our accomplishments. Third, when we love work, we will likely have better relationships with our coworkers, employees, and/or employers, leading to better social satisfaction.
However, the Mishnah cautions that certain jobs should be avoided for the various negative outcomes they can evoke. “Hate acting the superior” warns of the dangers that positions of power and authority can have on the personality (Rabbeinu Bechaye). “Do not attempt to draw near to the ruling authority” advises not to get too close to ruling powers—being known to the authorities can have unintended negative personal consequences (Rashi) and can have a deleterious effect on one’s trust in God (Rabbeinu Yonah).
Leiv Avot understands the first two clauses of the Mishnah as good career advice: people tend to have higher job satisfaction when their work revolves around creating or being task-oriented (“ehov et hamelacha”), while people generally dislike politically-based jobs (“u-sena et harabanut”). Therefore, one should choose the job that he or she will end up liking better. That being said, Rabbi Yosef Nachmias points out that in his time (14th century), despite the advice of the Mishnah, there was a need for people to fill communal and political positions such as serving as liaisons with the government. At times, a call to communal responsibility may outweigh the value of choosing a job that would be more enjoyable.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, building on an idea of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, adds an important insight based on a creative reading of the Mishnah. Despite what many people may think, finding happiness at work doesn’t mean only working on the glorified big projects, or needing to have a new, transformative idea to pursue. Rabbi Lamm writes:
Our activities – familial and professional – can be divided into two categories: melakhah, those that are routine and mundane, and rabbanut, those that are prestigious and power laden. We are often drawn to the exciting and dazzling while we are dismissive of the ordinary. Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin teaches that each of us should embrace the melakhah, the daily, the routine, the humdrum, for that is where real achievements are attained. And we should distance ourselves from the rabbanut – the areas of glory and power, for the obstacles and challenges they present, while alluring and ego gratifying, can be elusive and corruptive.
Putting these sources together, besides just giving advice on the importance of industriousness and productivity, there is an added benefit to thinking critically about what factors will help us enjoy work more. Whether choosing the right jobs where possible, cultivating better relationships, changing the work culture, or adapting our own approach or mindset, loving work will pay the most dividends.