Is Job Satisfaction the Same as Being Happy at Work?

I was attending Happiness at Work conference some time ago. Right at the beginning, we talked about Daniel Kahneman’s teachings, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, and a Nobel Prize Winner. Alexander Kjerulf, founder of Woohoo Inc., who was delivering the course made a distinction about job satisfaction versus being happy at work. I think it is important to know the difference since many organizations I see are struggling with that.

Job satisfaction comes from things like compensation, bonuses, office space, table tennis corner, free snacks, gym, and all the perks we see at many offices.

When leaders see the morale is low or people leave, these are the first things they provide. Sounds fun and appealing. They may increase job satisfaction for sure. Most leaders want more innovation, creativity, engagement, productivity, loyalty though. Unfortunately, those perks do not lead to what they want.

People need something more at work to be more engaged, more productive, more loyal:

  • They want more meaning in what they do.
  • They want to know what they do on a daily basis contributes to a bigger cause.
  • They want to be acknowledged not only for bringing more sales but things like helping another coworker, representing the values of the organization, being a great team player.
  • They want to see their work matters.
  • They want to feel they matter.
  • They want to have good relationships at work.

These are the things that make people happy at work. Results of being happy at work are very different than what job satisfaction can bring. Happy people are more engaged, more productive, more creative, more loyal.  There are so many studies now that we cannot even list here. (I will keep on writing to refer to them.)

Job satisfaction is like what you think about your job. It is more like how you evaluate it. Happiness is what you feel about your job. It is more about your experience. Two very distinctive perspectives.

I will never forget a CEO I met who was so frustrated seeing his people leave. When I asked him a few questions I found out, he was never at the office and when he was, his door was always closed and he left at 3 PM. He was not interacting with his people unless he really had to. He was always trying to keep his people by giving more money and was shocked to see them leave. This is unfortunately not a rare incidence; most of the workplaces use perks to keep their people. They do not realize those perks give only short term boosts. After a while, they become a normal part of the job.

There is nothing wrong with giving people nice office spaces, free coffee, and a gym, however, people need more emotional rewards at work. If you make them feel like a human being first, they can put up with a bad office and buy their own coffee, but they will be happy.

You never know what people can do for you when you treat them with trust, dignity, and make them know their loved ones come first.

I personally had this exact experience. I had a great office space, great title, great compensation, great gym (when no other company had it), great cafeteria with amazing food for free, great-everything but I left that company because my work was not aligned with who I am. I was not a human being first, I was a number. A couple of years later, I joined a very small company, at an office so sloppy I thought I would never work there, where there were no perks, I made less money but I was happy every Monday and every other day. The biggest difference was how they made me feel: they treated me as a human being and like a family member first. They had 100% trust in me on the first day. I lived this. I know the feeling. I am a hard-working person wherever I work but my performance and my results were amazing in that second job. I have never poured my heart and soul into a company as I did for that one. You never know what people can do for you when you treat them with trust, dignity, and make them know their loved ones come first. I was 100% myself every single day. That is an amazing feeling. I always wanted to do more for them, gave back to them, stayed loyal because of how they made me feel.

Leaders cannot expect engagement rates to go up or productivity to increase with tangible stuff. People want something that speaks to their hearts as well as their minds to be happy at work. Happy people work better and stay longer. As we care more about how people feel about their jobs instead of what they think about them, we will create a better world for all of us. Thank you Alexander for making me think about what #HappyatWork means all over again.


Brooke O. Erol
Brooke O. Erol
Brooke O. Erol started her career at IBM following the traditional path she was given to be "successful". She quit her "great job" on paper after 11 years, feeling she is not aligned with it. She started her journey to find her purpose in life. She started her first business in 2003; Your Best Life to help professionals who don’t like their jobs and want to find more meaning at work. After being around so many unhappy people at work as her clients, she decided to help the organizations and leaders who employed them. She started her second business; Purposeful Business to help leaders catch up with our times and grow their businesses without sacrificing the well-being of their people; where profit becomes a by-product rather than the main goal. She believes life is too precious to live only for weekends and retirement. She is the author of Create a Life You Love. She is also the co-author of "From Hierarchy to High Performance: Unleashing the Hidden Superpowers of Ordinary People to Realize Extraordinary Results" that became an International Best Seller in 2018. She speaks and writes about Leadership, Purpose-Driven Life and Organizations, Future of Work in the US, and abroad.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


    • Yes all of it is internal Aldo. Thank you. If we have leaders who understand it is internal than it is even better. Like a cherry on the top. I had great mentors and bosses that taught me these great life lessons before I had time to learn these on my own which was my luck.

  1. Brooke, brilliant insights. Without trust, dignity and recognizing people’s loved ones come first, it makes sense that any tangible perks only form a starting block for a search for that next opportunity where you’ll be happy.

    Love the specific examples you give. Meaning and making a difference get people to truly be present with their best self.



    • Thank you Cynthia! I am always so excited to see more and more of us are seeing seeking meaning at work as crucial; so we will eventually get there. Thanks for taking the time to share!

  2. Hi, Brooke, and thanks.

    Leadership fascinates this journeyman. Two things I believe (though not the only two) about this wonderful art, and which I pass on to the learners who put themselves in my care –

    Lead from where you stand (per Jeff’s point). Leadership is independent of position.

    A primary function of every leader is to establish context, a community of learning. As Margaret Wheatley suggests (and she’s scary smart): “Power in organizations is the capacity generated by relationships.”

    Keep on fightin’ the good fight

    And, of course, please check out the back2different podcast:

    • Thank you so much for your wise comments Mac. I have not heard of the quote from Margaret Wheatly before that resonates so much with me. I will definitely check out your podcast.

  3. Brooke: Well said! The data is there: people who are engaged are actually more productive.

    Here’s my question: what responsibility does the average worker or teammate have for their own engagement? My experience is that people have been led to believe that engagement is solely a management responsibility. Consequently, when they don’t get the six bullets you identified from management – great list, btw – they don’t feel engaged. I don’t argue that management has a BIG responsibility here, but who says that we shouldn’t own take some responsibility for our engagement?

    • Great question Jeff. I have a template I created for the two sides of my business; one is the individual’s work to figure out who they are what motivates them and what activities make them feel engaged and the other side is the role of the organization/leaders in engagement. So to answer your question people have a huge responsibility with their own engagement. We cannot expect leaders to do it all for us. We are responsible for our choices including where we work. I could have never worked for companies who do harm to the planet for example. No matter what I do there I cannot feel fully engaged knowing we are doing harm. Same applies when we go to any company to work, we need to figure out what we want, have a vision for ourselves and do everything possible to make it our reality. There is always two sides to the equation. Thank you so much for your thoughts and comments as always.