I think most of us have heard the old adage about the ‘happy, productive worker’ and believed it. It’s been written about in the media with tips around how to make employees happy at work.  But what does the research say? 

For years, organizational psychologists discussed the idea that happy workers should be better performers and more productive. It makes some intuitive sense, right? If you are feeling positive, it seems like you’d be more motivated to get things done and go through your day with a good attitude. However, the results around this idea were somewhat mixed until people started talking about the difference between job satisfaction and well-being.

Job Satisfaction vs. Well-Being

Job satisfaction and well-being are two very different ideas. For a long time, researchers were defining a happy worker as one that is satisfied in their job. Sounds reasonable, right? If someone is happy in their job, in theory, they should be a better performer. Below, I define job satisfaction and well-being to help unpack what this happy, productive worker idea really means in the real world.

Job Satisfaction

Job satisfaction describes how much someone feels or thinks their experience in their job is positive or negative. Someone that has high job satisfaction believes their job is a good one and they probably also like doing it to some degree. It’s a very job-specific feeling. You can have high job satisfaction and be unhappy with pretty much everything else in your life. So would that actually make you a happy worker?

Isn’t this you every day at work? Putting “be Happy” stickers on your head to remind you to be a happy worker? I completely relate…

Interestingly, a strong review of the research did find that there is a relationship between job satisfaction and performance. Those that are happier in their jobs are better performers. But these same researchers didn’t believe that was the full picture. What about well-being?


Well-being is a term often used by researchers when studying the idea of happiness. It is a much broader idea than job satisfaction. Well-being describes someone’s life as a whole, not just one part. High well-being includes experiencing lots of positive emotions and very few negative emotions. I think most of us are familiar with this concept. It pretty much means in the scientific literature the same thing that we mean using the word everyday.

Well-being has also been studied and found to predict performance. In other words, people with higher well-being (happier) are higher performers (more productive). One study even showed that people who were happier were still considered higher performers two years later!

You have to make sure all aspects of your life are healthy and growing, not just your work!

So…What is a Happy, Productive Worker?

More recent research tried to understand how job satisfaction and well-being both contribute to this happy, productive worker idea. Hold on tight as we nerd it up for a bit! This study found that if an employee has low well-being, their performance is lower no matter how satisfied they are in their job. Basically, if everything is bad in your overall life, no matter how great your job is, you will not perform very well.

However, if you have high well-being, then job satisfaction matters! Let me give you some examples. If I am super happy, but I’m not satisfied with my job, I will not perform very well. But if I am super happy AND my job is awesome, I will be a high performer. So both job satisfaction and well-being really matter!

A happy, productive worker is someone that is happy in their job AND in their whole life!

What Does This Mean?

You can’t separate the rest of your life from your work. Your well-being overall is going to impact you in the workplace. It’s important for your career to not just focus on how you are doing at work but to focus on being happy in your life overall.

I think this result is also incredibly important for senior leaders and companies. It shows that companies should care about their employees’ overall well-being, not just whether they are happy in their jobs. Ideally, leaders would care because people run organizations and it’s the kind thing to do. However, having this tied to performance is often important in convincing companies to do what’s right.

Overall, the idea of a happy, productive worker is correct. It’s just important to remember that happiness is broader than the job.

What do you think? Do these results make sense to you? We’d love to hear from you about this old adage! Comment below!


  1. Hey! I actually found this through Tone It Up in one of your blog post comments!! Wooooo TIU! I love the idea of merging workplace and individual well being into one. I have an advice question relevant to this topic: I’m working for an organization that takes kids abroad during summer for various topics (it’s my dream job!!). Generally trips are led by 2 co-leads, however my program is led by 3. Unbeknownst to the organization prior to staff training, my other co leads are actually very good friends. One of my co leads is reasonable and very nice while the other didn’t like me from the get-go. Her actions towards me were extremely confusing and unpredictable so I spent that entire week second guessing my entire personality. I’m generally very friendly and amiable so her reaction to me was a brand new thing for me. The situation escalated without me even realizing and worked its way up to headquarters. She was MIA for 5 hours of training because she was so upset so we had to have a facilitated meeting about it which was on LITERALLY my 5th day of working for my dream company 🙁 Try as I might, the entire thing consumed a lot of my emotional energy. After the meeting, I learned that she led trips last year and had the exact problem with her female co-lead. Both instructors had a miserable time together (3 weeks). I’m about to spend 50 days attached at the hip with her and I have to admit, I am very nervous about it. Program days will be very long, physically and mentally draining just in working with the kids. Add in a co-lead with confusing communication techniques and a dramatic personality, and it just might be a recipe for disaster which I’m afraid will effect my ability to succeed to my fullest potential at my job. This topic seemed relevant to this post and I was just wondering what advice you’d be willing to offer for someone living and working very closely with someone that for whatever reason, doesn’t enjoy you.

    Thanks Patricia and Katina!

  2. Hi Angela! So glad that you found us! Welcome to our hive :). You are completely right that interpersonal conflict can be draining, especially when you are a newer employee and have lower social capital than someone who might have been around longer. It’s good that you had a meeting with the problematic co-lead so that it’s documented that you were amenable to working through the issue with her. Some other ideas that might help: First, is there a manager or someone else who you feel you have made a good connection with from the start who you think you could talk to about it confidentially? Someone who knows her better than you do may have good insights into her behavior and could possibly give you valuable information. Second, do you think that you could talk to her honestly about your goal to make sure that the relationship goes smoothly from here on out? She might respond positively if you reach out in order to emphasize that it’s important to you that you have a good relationship with her moving forward. To make it more effective, are there good things about her that you could mention in your communication? For example, if she has great experience in leading these trips, maybe you could say something like, “It’s important to me that we have a good relationship and I have honestly been feeling upset about the fact that we got off on the wrong foot. I know that I can learn a lot from you, given your experience in leading these trips, so I don’t want the start of our relationship to affect how we move forward. I’m hoping that you’re amenable to meeting with me to discuss how we can make sure that our trip is successful” – something like that? At times, while it might seem difficult, honesty and a little ego-inflation :), can go a long way with someone who is interpersonally difficult. Third, do you have a good relationship with the other co-lead? Maybe you can approach them and let them know that you are concerned about how things devolved and that you are really focused on making sure that the trip is fun and successful. They will probably only want to speak neutrally about the co-lead you are having issues with, since they are friends, but they might have insights that would at least give you clues about how to best manage your relationship with the other co-lead. We can definitely talk further if you still have questions, but hopefully this at least starts to help with problem solving! Thanks for reaching out – we really value our community members and hope you continue to enjoy our content!

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