How Can Universities Prepare Students to Find Work That Make Them Happy?

By the SMU Social Media Team

Most of us will spend a considerable part of our lives in the workplace, so it’s no surprise the recently released World Happiness Report states the workplace is a key foundation of happiness.

But interestingly, the research also shows that money is not the only measure of happiness. The data shows things like work-life balance, job variety and a level of autonomy are also significant drivers of happiness at work among respondents.

While salary will always be a consideration, particularly for fresh graduates, we asked Associate Professor of Psychology Christie Scollon, who previously taught the SMU-X course on ‘Subjective Well-being: The Science of Happiness’, how universities and undergrads can lay positive foundations to help them achieve happiness and fulfilment when they enter the workplace.


Christie Scollon

Why is what happens in the workplace a key foundation of happiness?

Assoc Prof Scollon: There’s quite a bit of research showing that work satisfaction and life satisfaction go hand in hand. It makes sense given how many hours we spend working versus doing other things. Work provides more than income. It provides a source of identity, social support, and opportunities for expression.


Is salary the most important driver of happiness for millennials?

Assoc Prof Scollon: I think millennials are savvy and attuned to a higher goal than simply getting rich. Young people nowadays are disillusioned by the rat race and by consumerism, and they have turned to bigger questions. ‘What is all this for?’ ‘Why do we work?’ The answer is not just because work pays the bills. Students, and we as a society, are becoming increasingly interested in having impact. Heck, I’ve even met prospective students who are considering SMU who have explicitly said, I don’t care about getting rich.


So how can universities prepare students to find work that fulfils them in ways beyond remuneration?

Assoc Prof Scollon: Because what people find fulfilling differs from person to person, I think the most important thing universities can do is get students to confront their own version of a good life, get them to ask ‘Why do we work?’ ‘What’s truly important to you?’ ‘Why do you pursue the goals that you pursue?’ I ask the students to revisit these hard questions time and again throughout their lives. After all, we do health check-ups, financial check-ups. Why not do the most important check-up of all—a good life check-up?


How can universities ensure that students pursue a variety of career options and not just those they perceive will bring them happiness through material wealth?

Assoc Prof Scollon: We encourage students to develop their interests, not just their knowledge. We also need to expose young people to a lot of possibilities in the hope that they will become passionate about one of them. Students need to be able to imagine themselves in those lives, but even better is if they can get some kind of experience or up-close look, so they can figure out if it’s the right path for them. Through SMU-X-type partnerships and internships, students get exposed to real industries, real communities.


Does studying the science of happiness give students a broader perspective on the causes of happiness and an appreciation of fulfilment through factors other than remuneration?

Assoc Prof Scollon: SMU students will likely go on to be directors and managers at some point in their careers and when they do so, they will have considerable impact on the well-being of others.  This is a point I make when I teach about happiness and work. For instance, employees themselves often do not determine their own work-life balance. These things are a matter of work-load and demand, which come from supervisors and management.

Educating students about happiness is not only about helping them achieve personal happiness, but also about helping them to understand their effects on others. If students learn these lessons well, they have the opportunity to change the work culture in Singapore and have far-reaching impact on many more lives than just their own.


What, beyond an attractive salary, can employers who recruit graduates do to ensure their employees are happy at work?

Assoc Prof Scollon: First of all, they have to really care about employees’ happiness, not just for the sake of improving productivity or squeezing more work out individual workers. Free snacks in the pantry will only go so far. Second, people want to feel respected, no matter their profession or rank. Respect is not the same as status. Respect is about listening to people, treating them humanely (including expecting what is humanly possible from them), being mindful of their time both at work and outside of work, and giving them some autonomy. Third, fairness matters. Fourth, it helps to have friends at work, but employers shouldn’t take this as a reason to force co-workers to become friends through gatherings outside of work.


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