Work and Happiness – Does a Promotion make you Happier?

The price: A beautiful autumn friday off and a hike to Kloster Andechs / Bavaria. The cost: Not exactly helping your career in Germany's companies that pay for presence rather than for output. Well, so be it.

The gain: A beautiful autumn friday off and a hike to Kloster Andechs / Bavaria.
The cost: Not exactly helping your career in Germany’s companies that pay for presence rather than for output.
Well, so be it.

You know that feeling?

You thought that – after years of practising – you are a downshifter down to the last bone.
You did your budgets, killed off any unnecessary spending. You internalized the idea of time and social ties being the most valuable ingredient in life instead of money or luxury. You are able to enjoy the simple things, you learned how to walk through a department store without being attracted by all the fancy superfluous stuff there in the slightest bit. You can enjoy a camp holiday as much as a holiday in a 5* spa hotel. You even learned to accept the strange material needs of others without any envy. And so forth.

In one sentence:

You thought you made it! Break out of the worlds material preoccupation and exit the never-ending rat-race.

But – as Woodpecker – you are still working in a job. However, you are far from stupidly slaving away, you leave when all work is done and do not wait until the boss is finally leaving. You are efficient, you don’t waste your time with politics and all the unnecessary stuff that is done in offices. Thus, while your hours at office might be much shorter, your actual output and benefit to the company is the same or even higher as most colleagues. And you care for that, because you know it is important as a downshifter to do a good job – as envy for your freedom might hit you from the fearful slave-workers at any time.

And then, from time to time, this supposedly quelled unrest is stirring again:

The unrest that people much more stupid and much less able than you are telling you what to do.

The question whether, downshifting or not, you should sacrifice more to finally make a bit of a “career”.

Because, whatever “modern” companies will tell you that you can have it both – career as well as family&abundand private live – in the end it is not true.Most of them want you to sacrifice, to make a decision. Pro career, or pro your extensive private life.
In most companies and with most bosses, months and months of parental leave, part-time, home-office, early leave to go to the lake, sailing or whatever, prolonged holidays etc. are (even if unpaid!!) not compatible with a career, no matter what your actual performance and output is. Companies are not that modern yet – at least not in Germany.

In other words, from time to time, you feel secretly tempted:

Shall I do a few more spins in the treadmill? Only a few spins to get this promotion. And afterwards I really stop it and will be happy on an even higher level…

Well, Statistics and Research are quite clear here:

We should not sacrifice any happiness we already have for a promotion. In fact we should carefully consider if we want to be promoted at all.

This is the clear result of this long-term empirical study done on the effect of promotion (in the sense of higher level in the hierarchy) on happiness and health.
What they did is basically check for the change in health (split into physical and mental health – where a good mental health is basically defined as the absence of fear, tension and anxiety) and for the change in happiness/life satisfaction as a result of promotions. And they checked for the time-line as well, i.e. what was the effect six months, one year, two years, three years after the promotion.

And, guess what?

While a promotion does boost short-term happiness and even short-term health (both physical and mental), the effect wears off after about 1-2 years, a pattern so often seen in happiness economics.

Even the components “fairness of my pay” , “felt job security”, “freedom to define my work” (things people typically associate with a promotion) do go back to start after a short boost of one year. In other words, only a year or so after your promotion you will again feel as much or less trapped, restricted, insecure and unfair paid as prior to your promotion.

Or, as a recently very highly promoted friend of Woodpecker said quite wisely over a beer last week: “In the end, I am still squeezed in the same sandwich. I am merely two layers higher, but pressure is the same from above and below and there are always layers over you.”

It is astonishing:

All happiness indicators, feeling-of-control-indicators, fun-in-work-indicators and physical health indicators come back, most already within 6-12 months, some after a maximum of three years.

But it gets even worse:

The only indicators that are not coming down are:

  • Increased working hours
  • Decreased level of mental health, i.e. increase in tension, stress, anxiety.

Of all things just these indicators stay increased. And this is probably not what people expected from their promotion, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, the most important curve "happiness/overall life-satisfaction" is missing here: After a short boost, it actually gets negative about 2 years after the promotion.

Unfortunately, the most important curve “happiness/overall life-satisfaction” is missing here: After a short boost, it actually gets negative about 2 years after the promotion.

The effects above might even help to explain the basic mechanics of the job-rat-race:

As a promotion does give you a boost in happiness on the short run, but does actually punish you on the long run, it acts exactly similar to a drug.

Once the effect wears off, you will remember the good feeling immediately after taking it and you will need another shot.

Thus people are typically not able to do only “a few spins in the treadmill”, but once entered, they stay in there and tread and tread until the very end.

Question now is:

Is it a good idea to enter the mill in the first place? Should you really want more status? Or do you try to stay where you are and merely fight for more money to finance your downshifter’s lifestyle?

I leave it to you 😉




10 comments on “Work and Happiness – Does a Promotion make you Happier?

  1. freebutfun says:

    I find it pretty fascinating to read your blog as it seems to me you have made a very conscious decision to downshift – and that you maybe take it over and over again? Because I like a lot of things you like but I’m not really a downshifter. I just prefer to go camping to a 5* hotel.

    However, I did now look for a new job when I wanted to return to the work force after 3 years at home with the kids, as in my old job I as the head of the department was the one to clean up any potential mess (so to speak) and I did not want to do that with small kids at home. So one of my aims was to find a job which doesn’t require spontaneous long evenings. And I do not want to put in a lot of extra hours anymore. So in a way I suppose I did opt for more time (and less money?)?
    But then, I have never applied for promotions or aimed to be the boss, I always got offered those things.

    So I guess I don’t feel like I am missing out on anything. Surely I could spend more money but I live comfortably enough like this too. Earning more money often meant having less time to spend it on travels anyway. But when reading your posts, I get the feeling that maybe you feel like you are giving up on something in order to gain something else? Is it so? Is it an inner struggle? Would you prefer to do the 5* holidays to your summer trip to Krakow? Is this a temporary solution for you, or are you thinking you are downshifting for good? I am darn curious, aren’t I? That is what you get for writing well and about interesting themes 🙂

  2. mrwoodpecker says:

    Thank you very much for this thoughtful (and challenging) comment.

    Let’s go step by step:
    First thing is, do I understand correctly that you seem to confim what the study shows, that beeing a head of department is not really increasing overall life satisfaction? As I never had a position like that I’d be interested in more details of your experience!

    Secondly, in my view you would actually qualify as a downshifter quite well!
    You gave up a career, income, stress, and in fact a whole corporate job in return for more time, family, travelling, freedom, quality of live. And now, when returning, you seem to put focus on finding a human job and not a maximum-paying one.
    For me, this is the very essence of downshifting.
    The other part (frugal living, saving, investing etc.) is merely a tool to reduce material needs in order to be able to live on a smaller income and thus become more independent from joining the rat-race.

    Coming to me, whether I think I have to give up something:
    For me it is not so much a question of A vs. B (e.g. camping vs. 5*hotel).
    Do I need a 5* holiday each year to feel happy? Certainly not.
    But then,personnaly I enjoy life most if I have a maximum of *variety* and if I can see life from as many angles as possible. E.g., yes, I enjoy staying at a nice fancy hotel (please NO boring standard tourist all-inclusive-club though) from time to time or eating out at a restaurant every now and then. Or doing a sailing trip – not the most frugal thing to spend your time with.
    But I equally enjoy cooking at home with friends, staying at a camp site, doing a city trip in a youth-hostel, a weekend in a zero-comfort mountain hut. Because all these things feel different and unique and can have their own beauty.

    So the answer is that the Woodpecker clan tries to tune in a downshfifting level (for good!) that secures living with a relatively low budget while still allowing for a fancy thrill from time to time.
    And we try to get the thrills for as low a price as possible. E.g. in Poland this summer we stayed at some quite nice fancy hotels as they are very affordable there, whereas in expensive Italy we prefer camping. In France we once or twice went to quite distinguished restaurants to see how they are, but then on weekdays lunch time, when they offer great bargain deals. And on the next day we just had a baguett and cheese in a public park, and so on.

    This is what I call “the middle way”. I think we will never be as extreme as e.g. Mr Money Mustache in our spending discipline, but overall we are probably even further away from the typical western money waster.


    • freebutfun says:

      Thanks for the answer, and sorry, I’ve missed it before 🙂 I’ll go step-by-step too:

      1. Regarding being a head of department: I don’t know what to say. It did and also did not increase life satisfaction. I used to love it but I wouldn’t now (or I wouldn’t mind the job description but not everything that comes with it). I used to love the challenges, the pace, being able to make a difference, good sales due to great results etc and I *was* satisfied with life. But it wasn’t the money that made me satisfied nor the “power”, it was what we did, the contents of the job, and I suppose that is why I wanted to (and was lucky enough to be successful) to find a job with equally meaningful job description but with less hassle. I guess I wonder myself a little how long I would have felt satisfied with the rhythm if I wouldn’t have gotten children. With children came another aspect of satisfaction in being at home, that is something I don’t want to miss out on all the time but then being back at work 37,5 hours/week is actually quite good for the nerves too 🙂

      2. You convinced me, I’m a downshifter too, at least with your description. I thought I was just a hedonistic person to enjoy life 😉

      3. I can very well follow you on the wish for variation, I suppose it is freedom of choice really. Reading your answer, we actually look for our middle way as well.

      Man, what a good post, rare to read anything that makes me so aware of my choices!

  3. witchdream says:

    I have mixed feelings about your interesting article.

    YES, you should be well aware that a promotion will change your daily work. You will probably have less specific problem solving, and more general planning and supervizing. Most importantly: You will have to convince other people what to do and how to do it. Some people enjoy this new reponsibility, but for others, this can be a very distressful part of their new position. This is especially true, if you tend to rather avoid conflicts and disputes. In the end, it depends on your personality.

    NO, I would not agree that a promotion automatically (!) means more work and more distress. This may be true for the majority of newly promoted bosses. No wonder, there are myriads of training courses for those newly appointed bosses – many fail to perform. The typical sucker really thinks he has to impress his superiors, his colleagues and his team-members by staying ultra-long in the office. This behaviour may be expected in some neurotic companies, but in most cases, it is self-inflicted by the newly-promoted. They think, a boss should behave this way. They can´t even imagine that also a boss can do a good job within 35 hours/week. They would feel ashamed to even discuss this issue with their top-management before their very own promotion!

    So what? Clearly, every promotion is a risk for you, because you never know, whether you keep up with the new requirements. Yet, every promotion will provide new benefits: more money, more freedom, more fringe benefits etc etc. Whether you have to sell your soul for these benefits, should be clarified before (!) your promotion. If in doubt, refrain from it. If you can maintain your way of living, go for it.

    • mrwoodpecker says:

      Thank you for your valuable input.

      You certainly raise some good points here: Corporate culture, personality, resistance to stress/conflict .

      All of this will influece the company’s expectations towards you (and if they match your own ideas), the level of additional stress/anxiety due to additional conflicts/responsibilities and last but not least how much you are affected by all of this.

      Equally the things mentioned will affect the positive side of a promotion, e.g. fringe benefits, more money, and how much do you value these benefits.

      From your detailed comment, I take it that you do have or did have a management position and it did *not* decrease your *overall* life satisfaction/happiness?
      Respectively it did even increase you overall life satisfaction?!

      • witchdream says:

        You are right, I did end up in senior management positions. Fortunately, they were within relatively small companies resp. small business units, which drastically enlarges your own freedom of action and facilitates coordination with colleagues.

        I do know the “joys” of a job with low profile from various student jobs – be it road construction, taxi driving or postal service. There you get a full dose of what you describe so nicely:
        [quote]The unrest that people much more stupid and much less able than you are telling you what to do.[/quote]

        As for me, it is a much bigger distress to do a routine job under the supervision of a sucker than being a supervising sucker myself… ;o) And, as mentioned: Nobody keeps you from negotiating your working hours, even in management positions. Working in Germany for a Swiss company, I did have my home-office periods, and I did have the afternoon off on Wednesdays to pursue my course in gliding. If your boss wants you to stay in the company, he will be amazingly flexible.

        Good luck, if you go for it!

  4. It doesn’t surprise me that the boost of a promotion wears off. But this actually excites me – the constant human urge to want more and better can be a curse if it controls you or wears you down but if you can recognise and control it and use it to work towards new and more fulfilling things, then it’s great. It’s the stuff of progress!

    Of course your “new and more fulfilling things” might not be the things you get paid for. (Free But Fun might have a less stressful work life these days but makes up for it on other fronts with two little children. She has been “promoted” on balance to a more demanding role – she just doesn’t get paid for the bit that’s more demanding.)

    Then again, it might be your work which provides that challenge/progress – so it depends what you’ve got going on and where your passion is.

    New challenges can be stressful but people are happier with a certain, moderate amount of stress. I think that’s the reason the boost only lasts a year or two for many – they get too competent after that, they need a new challenge/another promotion. As long as we expect this we can use the knowledge to look for our next opportunity, either at work or in our personal lives, instead of getting baffled and disillusioned when the buzz inevitably wears off.

    • mrwoodpecker says:

      Thanks for you comment! I fully agree that the human curiosity and urge for new things is a wonderful thing!

      On comment though on stress and happiness:

      It is not exactly true that people are happier with a certain amount of stress.

      In fact, you have to differenciate (German/Latin word, don’t know in English) “disstress” (i.e. negative stress, coming basically from uncontrolable situations, from anxiety and from too heavy pressure) and “eustress” (i.e. positive stress, i.e. challenges you feel able to meet and have control over. Situations that are difficult but manageable and energize you).

      The effects of disstress are always negative for your well-being and your body and disstress is normally not felt like a challenge/growth-chance by individuals but as something you want to get rid of.

      The study above measures disstress by checking the level of “anxiety”-related feelings. Thus, the average(!) job promotion to a managerial position in the study seems to create *negative* stress in the long run.
      Based on the study it might be more clever to look for new challenges without becoming a boss – by changing job or by moving horizontally.

      • I do see the difference – I don’t think we have a word to differentiate in English. Although even with anxious situations, you can get a boost from overcoming them (as long as it doesn’t get too much first). But certainly a horizontal move might be a good option to look into.

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