Studies suggest people are leaving or planning to leave their employers in record numbers in 2021 — a “great resignation” that appears to have been precipitated by reflection on achieving the right balance of work and leisure, both of which contribute to well-being.

But if we’re all reconsidering where and how work fits into our lives, what should we be aiming for, asks Lis Ku of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

On one hand, our jobs can provide us with a sense of competence, which contributes to well-being. Researchers have demonstrated not only that labor leads to validation but that, when these feelings are threatened, we’re particularly drawn to activities that require effort — often some form of work — because these demonstrate our ability to shape our environment, confirming our identities as competent individuals.

Work even seems to makes us happier in circumstances when we’d rather opt for leisure. This was demonstrated by a series of clever experiments in which participants had the option to be idle (waiting in a room for 15 minutes for an experiment to start) or busy (walking for 15 minutes to another venue to participate in an experiment). Very few participants chose to be busy, unless they were forced to make the walk, or given a reason to (such as being told there was chocolate at the other venue).

Yet the researchers found that those who’d spent 15 minutes walking ended up significantly happier than those who’d spent 15 minutes waiting — no matter whether they’d had a choice or a chocolate … or neither. In other words, busyness contributes to happiness even when you think you’d prefer to be idle.

The idea that work, or putting effort into tasks, contributes to our general well-being is closely related to the psychological concept of eudaimonic happiness. This is the sort of happiness that we derive from optimal functioning and realizing our potential. Research has shown that work and effort are central to eudaimonic happiness, explaining that satisfaction and pride you feel on completing a grueling task.

This orientation sits well with a new concept in the field of well-being studies: that a rich and diverse experiential happiness is the third component of a “good life,” in addition to hedonic and eudaimonic happiness.

Across nine countries and tens of thousands of participants, researchers recently found that most people (over 50% in each country) would still prefer a happy life typified by hedonic happiness. But around a quarter prefer a meaningful life embodied by eudaimonic happiness, and a small but nevertheless significant amount of people (about 10-15% in each country) choose to pursue a rich and diverse experiential life.