The Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily

Courtesy of a psychologist’s book from 1959

Niklas Göke

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Photo by Brandon Lopez on Unsplash

On most days, I don’t shower to not feel dirty. I shower to feel clean. It may not sound like it, but there’s a difference.

Have you ever wasted away in bed for a few days until, at some point, you couldn’t stand your greasy hair anymore and lugged yourself into the shower? If so, by turning on the water, you took care of what Frederick Herzberg would have called “a hygiene factor” — pun present but not intended.

In his 1959 book The Motivation to Work, Herzberg, a clinical psychologist and professor, introduced a model of motivation called “the two-factor theory.” It stipulates that in order to feel happy in our jobs, two conditions must come together: a lack of dissatisfaction and a presence of satisfaction.

Hygiene factors are elements causing dissatisfaction when not tuned correctly, whereas motivators are elements causing satisfaction if present at all. Job safety is mostly a hygiene factor: You want to have confidence you can still show up at work tomorrow, but unless the economy’s in a recession, that’ll hardly make you jump with joy. Responsibility, on the other hand, is a motivator. A job without it where you do simple, repetitive tasks, can still be not-dissatisfying, but in order to take genuine pride in your work, you’ll have to stick your neck out for something or someone.

Herzberg believed work was more than a zero-sum game: You need to both eliminate the minuses and add the pluses. The more motivators you add, the happier you’ll be — but only as long as all crucial hygiene factors remain taken care of. You can’t fixate on one over the other. Only a two-pronged approach will do.

Interestingly, individual aspects of your job can be both hygiene factors and motivators at the same time. Those are the most powerful determinants of our happiness at work and, therefore, the first knobs we should turn. Our relationships with colleagues, for example.

If your teammates make your life a living hell, constantly worrying about what they’ll do next will be a huge distraction from your work. That’s dissatisfaction: Regardless of whether you like your actual tasks, if you’re prevented from properly doing them in the first…

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Niklas Göke

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. Read my daily blog here: https://nik.art/