• Managing people

Happiness at Work

Variety Vs Accomplishment: Variety is not always the ‘Spice of Life’


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In an interconnected, digital, workplace things not only happen very fast but we tend to be pulled in multiple directions, making our work varied if nothing else. This plays to the old adage ‘variety is the spice of life’ and certainly having varied work can be stimulating. But to what extent does variety add to our happiness at work?

New research, from Professor Jordan Etkin at Duke University Fuqua School of Business and UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Professor Cassie Mogilner, shows that while engaging in a variety of activities day-to-day can make us happier, too much variety in too short a time can have the opposite effect. If a happy workforce is likely to be more engaged and high-performing, then this research, has important implications for managers.

"We found that when we fill longer time periods with varied activities, it feels stimulating and makes us happier with that time," says Etkin. "But when we jam variety into hours and minutes, that reduces happiness because it takes away from our sense of productivity. That's true even if we get done what we were trying to get done. If we switch between very different things in a short amount of time, we don't feel as if we've accomplished as much."

Hundreds of people across age groups, gender, and marital and employment status participated in eight experiments; in some they were asked to see more variety among their past activities, and in others to perform more or less varied activities. The researchers then measured how happy participants felt.

The research revealed that when variety was spread over a day, a week, or a month people did feel happier afterwards. But too much variety over shorter periods of time had a negative effect. Time spent on varied things within an hour, 30 minutes or 15 minutes made people feel less happy.

One study, where students revising for exams were encouraged to see ‘time’ as longer — by thinking that an hour contains 3,600 seconds, or shorter, by thinking that there are 168 hours in a week — also revealed that the way we view our time can influence how much variety makes us happy. The students who thought time was short felt less productive and less happy than those who thought the hour was longer and felt more able to engage with the material they were revising.

This points to a dichotomy in what makes us happy: whereas we tend to see variety as interesting and stimulating, we also like to feel we have accomplished something useful with our time. According to Etkin “What we find is that shorter time periods really don't give people enough time to transition between varied activities and still feel productive."

The research results suggest it is possible to influence our sense of happiness by categorizing our activities in certain ways, to make them seem more or less varied based on how much time we have. "The narrower the categories we have, the more differences we see between the activities and the more varied they seem," says Etkin. "The flip of that is to group activities in inclusive buckets if we want to see them as less varied and more similar."

To ensure an engaged and happy workforce, managers need to strike a balance. While offering employees varied activities can have a positive effect on how stimulating and engaging people find their time at work, variety squeezed into short periods of time can have a negative effect on their feeling of accomplishment and happiness.

This article includes extracts from an article by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Access the original research paper: Does Variety among Activities Increase Happiness? Jordan Etkin, Cassie Mogilner, Journal of Consumer Research, May 2016, Oxford University Press

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