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UAlbany’s Loscocco Enhances ‘Happiness at Work’

by Greta Petry

Karyn Loscocco
Karyn Loscocco

A new book on business by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D., The Art of Happiness at Work (Riverhead Books), cites the research of University at Albany sociologist Karyn Loscocco.

The book is a series of conversations between Cutler and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and is a sequel to The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, which spent almost two years on The New York Times bestseller list.

According to Happiness at Work, research on job fulfillment finds that most people fall into one of three categories:

  • Those who view their job as simply a means of making a living.
  • Workers who are entirely career-driven. Status, title, and power are at the core of their striving.
  • Employees who view their job as a calling, as a way of helping other people. Researchers found workers in this category are happiest, as their self-worth is not as closely tied to title, salary, or what others think of them.

Loscocco, an associate professor who joined the UAlbany faculty in 1985, said, “My studies of job satisfaction and well-being do support the view that when work is seen as a calling it will bring happiness.” At the same time, she said, not everyone has the same chance to find meaning on the job. “I came to the study of job satisfaction from the perspective of social inequality. I am concerned about the obstacles some groups face in trying to derive more meaning from the work that they do.”

The Cutler book, published in 2003, cites research findings from studies the UAlbany sociologist conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of her first articles contested the accepted notion that factory workers willingly trade off challenging and interesting work in order to get more money and better fringe benefits. Through observation, interviews, and analyses of survey data from 3,637 midwestern factory workers (results published in the February 1989 issue of Work and Occupations: An International Sociological Journal), Loscocco found that meaning was often structured right out of tasks an employee would otherwise find meaningful; that employees were very creative about finding ways to challenge themselves at work; and that they wanted what other workers have — jobs that are intrinsically rewarding and paid well.

In her studies of gender and work, Loscocco moved toward models that included family. “It became clear to me, as others were saying, that paid work and family lives are connected in a single gendered system. How can we understand people’s happiness at work without knowing something about the rest of their lives?”

Loscocco believes that a key aspect of the work-family system is conflict or imbalance, and much of her more recent work examines this. Loscocco said the “main source of work-family conflict is the erosion of the gender division of labor.” Though women of color and white women of limited means have always worked for pay, the influx of white middle-class women into the labor force (even those with young children), has led to only a small minority of families having an employed husband and a stay-at-home wife. “Yet work institutions lag behind, continuing to organize work using the model of the male married worker who has a buffer at home managing his personal life so that he can devote himself to paid work,” she said. Not only has the husband lost his buffer, the working wife never had one, and the single parent manages the demands of work, child care, housework, and finances alone.

In an article published in The Gerontologist in 2000, Loscocco proposed a new model of “age integration.” She wrote, “Ideally, a society in which people intersperse education, work, and leisure over the course of their lives is one in which role strain and role overload at midlife can be dramatically lessened.”

Education and training would continue through life. Flextime, job sharing, and leaves would be available for employees in all kinds of jobs, not just for the privileged. This would help reduce unemployment as paid work opportunities would be distributed more evenly. Loscocco is proposing an “ideal type,” but her article provides an interesting approach to the problem of the structural lag affecting working people.

With a National Science Foundation grant of $184,433, she conducted The Upstate New York Small Business Study — face-to-face interviews with 643 self-employed women and men— in which one of her questions is how people negotiate their work and family lives while they await larger societal change. The study looks at how much time people give to paid work and family, and how that affects work-family balance and personal well-being. She is analyzing the extent to which people make tradeoffs between economic success and happiness, and whether men and women have similar patterns, given men’s continued pressure to provide for their families. Loscocco and colleague Glenna Spitze are looking at incongruence between attitudes and behavior about family responsibilities caused by structural lag.

Until American corporations catch up to the vast social changes in the family, one can find happiness at work by following the Dalai Lama’s simple advice to pay attention to basic human relationships. “Be a good person, a kind person. Relate to others with warmth, human affection, with honesty and sincerity. Compassion,” he told Cutler.