The Empowering Link Between Free Will and Work Satisfaction

It's time to reframe your outlook on work.

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

The extent to which you believe in free will might seem like a weird factor in work well-being, but new research published in the Personality and Psychology Bulletin suggests that leaning in to the concept of personal freedom may be key to workplace satisfaction, Quartz reports.

If hearing the words “free will” does little more than take you back to Philosophy 101, consider that the concept is more than just “philosophical balm,” as Quartz writer Ephrat Livni describes it. In fact, a “growing number of studies have shown that the belief in free will is associated with a wide array of cognitive and behavioral outcomes,” the study authors wrote in the paper.

Researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology designed three different studies to analyze the link between job satisfaction and personal freedom and determine whether that link was impacted by time, the specific kind of work people did or cultural values.

Each study was slightly different. In the first study, researchers had 250 real estate agents in Hong Kong rate how much they agreed with statements like “I am satisfied with the kind of work I do in this job” and “I am in charge of my actions even when my life’s circumstances are difficult,” according to Quartz. They answered the same questions three months later and researchers found that both times, there was a strong link between feeling free and being satisfied in work. The second study looked at 135 freelancers in the U.S. and the results supported the first study: even “discounting the added sense of freedom that autonomy gave gig workers,” Livni writes, the freelancers’ belief in personal freedom was “strongly correlated to higher job satisfaction...and again, it seemed to persist over time.”

In the last study, researchers looked at survey answers from more than 14,000 participants in 16 countries, gathered between 1990 and 2008 as part of the 2008 World Values Survey. They found that overall, belief in free will was linked to greater job satisfaction. But countries that placed a greater cultural value on personal agency reaped the most benefits. Livni compares Mexico and Japan to emphasize this point: in Mexico, free will was seen to be nationally valued and “strongly correlated with personal work satisfaction,” while in Japan, where “choice appeared to be less prized culturally,” the link between work satisfaction and sense of freedom, “while still existent—was not as strong,” Livni writes.

While there’s more research to be done in regards to why free will might lead to a satisfaction boost, the findings are good news for anyone looking to be happier in their work. Livni offers a few suggestions for how to start reframing your outlook to prioritize personal freedom: “Act like someone who has choices and whose acts matter, rather than a person whose destiny was written in advance,” Livni writes. Change your habits for the better, make smarter decisions, and see what happens when you consider yourself in charge of your life.

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Well-Being, Work Smarter, Work-Life Integration, Work Culture