Reporters at the Washington Post recently undertook an analysis of Department of Labor statistics related to jobs and happiness. Despite the fact that these jobs have relatively high levels of danger and physical pain associated with them:

Agriculture, logging and forestry have the highest levels of self-reported happiness — and lowest levels of self-reported stress — of any major industry category, according to our analysis of thousands of time journals from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. (Additional reporting sharpened our focus on lumberjacks and foresters, but almost everyone who works on farms or in forests stands out.)

What is the “secret sauce” among these happiest professions?

The happiest jobs are not necessarily marked by the highest pay or prestige, or even the highest levels of physical safety. There are a few standout commonalities:

The great outdoors — Being in nature, or even being near nature, has a strong correlation with mental health. So, even for the lumberjacks who may be chopping down trees, being out in nature among said trees is a happiness boost.

One person quoted in the article, the owner of a forestry company, remarked: “Even on your worst day — something has broken down and you need to get wood to the mill — the wind’ll blow and you’ll inhale a familiar scent — that pine sap — and it’ll just take you to a place of peace instantly… It’s therapy. The woods is therapy, the forest is therapy. You can have the worst day ever but when you get out here? The forest just takes it all away… With all of those challenges that they face, I have never heard a logger say, ‘I’m going to get out of it’…They say, ‘I wouldn’t want to do anything else.’”

Perspective and mission — Much like religious or spiritual activities, work which gives you a sense of being part of something greater than yourself is part of those happiest jobs. One professional who works in forestry said: “There’s a point where you are now planting trees that you are not going to see harvested.. It speaks to something larger than yourself… Your work is living on, and someone else will benefit from your efforts in a tangible way… People are mission-driven… They feel that this is an important thing they’re doing, even if the financial rewards are not nearly enough.”

Are there lessons here for nonprofits and their workers? 

Non-profit work certainly is mission driven: nonprofits work for the greater good and pursue missions that benefit others. And yet, as I describe in Be Well, Do Good: Self-Care and Renewal for Nonprofit Workers and other Do-Gooders, many nonprofit professionals are overworked, stressed out, feeling deflated and defeated. They are leaving their jobs, and/or their professions, in droves.

How can we apply some of the lessons and conditions of this happiest jobs research to the nonprofit sector?

Find ways to stay close to the mission: When I worked at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, people would often say to me “Isn’t your office depressing?” And I would respond by saying “No, it’s an office. We deal with deadlines and have meetings and talk about kids and recipes and commutes, just like any other office.” No matter how moving the work or the mission, sometimes when you work at a nonprofit you become disconnected from the cause. When I worked at the Holocaust Museum, I also volunteered as a museum tour guide, helping school groups understand this difficult history and find inspiration among stories of heroism and survival. It reminded me of what all of my hard work was about and elevated my performance on the job. Nonprofit workers must find ways to intentionally connect, on a regular basis, with the mission. Nonprofit organizations cannot simply leave this up to their employees as an option — they must make it a priority and facilitate ongoing opportunities for employees at every level of the organization to find meaningful connections to the mission.

Activate your senses: Precious few jobs enable workers to spend most of their days in nature. (For many, an “outdoor job” wouldn’t be personally desirable, anyway.) But there might be ways to activate your senses in order to gain a happiness boost. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, our senses of smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound enable us to become aware of the present moment and can lead towards a happiness boost. If you can’t go for a forest walk in the middle of the day, can you water the plant on your desk, feel the smoothness of its leaves, observe how the light hits it from different angles? If you can’t burn an aromatherapy candle in the office, can you sip on some fragrant tea? What about taking a bite of dark chocolate or popping a starlight mint in your mouth — do the tastes and smells make you stop and smile for a moment? We can’t all feel a cool breeze or warm sunshine on our skin during the workday, but we can keep feel-good, fuzzy fabrics or accessories nearby.

Am I suggesting that a starlight mint and a pair of fuzzy slippers will solve all of your workplace unhappiness? Certainly not! Am I saying that visiting the people your nonprofit organization helps will eliminate your unrealistic workload? Nope! I do, however, think that this is an area that is rich for further study.

In the meantime, there are small steps that individual nonprofit employees can take, and policy changes that nonprofits can make, that will help employees of mission-driven organizations move towards greater happiness and, dare I say, joy on the job.

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