The Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily Cover

The Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily

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 place, that’s bad motivational hygiene. If, however, you enjoy seeing your team every day and have fun little interactions with them, that not only reduces your performance anxiety, it also becomes its own reason to look forward to arriving at the office.

Income is another double-edged sword: You need at least a certain amount of it to get along financially and feel your dignity is intact, but the more you get even well beyond those hygiene factors, the more respected and valued you’ll feel. It’s a sign of both how essential you are to your firm — no one wants to feel completely expendable — and how much they appreciate you outside of just your contribution to the bottom line — the extra money makes you feel more accomplished, even if you don’t need it.

Going back to showering, that, too, can be both hygiene factor and motivator: If I don’t do it, my sloppy personal state might come with all-day grumpiness, but if I jump under the water, I may get an energy bonus on top. Will it last the entire day? I don’t know, but since I kill two birds with one stone — I eliminate a minus and add a plus — it’s a bet worth taking on a daily basis.

While it’s smart to start by optimizing the double-ended determinants that’ll get you the most bang for your buck, the necessary maintenance some hygiene factors require can be unforgiving. Returning to job safety, there’s little point arguing for a raise if your company is going through layoffs, and you suspect you might be fired. 

Granted, job security is barely in our control, but issues like micromanagement and needless bureaucracy are — if only by virtue of us choosing the right employer. Let’s say you’re more than happy with your salary, but your boss is constantly looking over your shoulder. In the long run, that gnawing dissatisfaction will eat away at your contentment. Sooner or later, you’ll still want to switch jobs. The same applies to excessive red tape. One can only fill in so many travel expense reports no one looks at before becoming wholly disillusioned. Both are hygiene factors we can discuss with our leaders and where concessions can be made, but over time, these minuses must stay consistently stay minor for any pluses to truly add up.

What I like most about Herzberg — and perhaps you’ve already guessed this from my showering example — is that the two-factor theory applies far beyond the confines of work. I can use the extra energy from my morning rinse just as well for a day trip or cleaning around the house, and even when I’m neither working nor sick, not showering for days slowly drags me into a state of misery. Similarly, you may find a great cup of coffee makes a first date worth it even if sparks don’t fly, or that weekends too crammed with social activities always leave a bad taste in your mouth, regardless of what fun stuff you had planned. Could coffee be a tier-1 motivator for you? Perhaps time to decompress is a non-negotiable hygiene factor.

That brings me to the next and final pillar of what we might call this slightly expanded version of Herzberg’s ideas — “the Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily:” You need clarity about the pluses and minuses in your life — and not just at work.

As you go about your day, check in with yourself as to why you’re doing whatever you’re about to do. “Is this a plus or a minus? Am I doing this out of fear or out of love? Are there negative feelings I am trying to get rid of, or are there some positive ones I hope to attain?” It’s not easy to realize you can barely focus when there’s background noise, but once you do, at least you can buy better headphones. Starting a monthly in-person book club, on the other hand, can do wonders to reduce stress at work if you feel that teaching small groups is inherently rewarding.

Hygiene factors, motivators, and the things that double as both — these drivers are completely different for every single one of us. It takes work to identify them, but that work is worth doing. What are your essentials for performing, even just functioning? What are your guiding stars, driving you to achieve more than you ever thought you could?

Life is more than a series of meals, but only when we know salt from pepper can we add the right spice at the right time. Too much salt, and we’ll spoil the broth. Too little pepper, and it will just taste bland. To recap, here’s the five-point recipe for “the Plus-and-Minus Theory of Living Happily:”

  1. Motivation and happiness require both an absence of dissatisfaction — a lack of minuses — and a presence of satisfaction — a cumulation of pluses.
  2. Some habits, conditions, and people play double-roles: They can secure our baseline while also raising our overall happiness potential — or damage them both. Focus on doubly impactful factors.
  3. No matter how many positive motivators we add, unless we maintain our hygiene factors well, our overall balance will always be off.
  4. There are pluses and minuses in all of life, not just at work.
  5. What constitutes a plus, a minus, or a double-factor varies from person to person and with time. We must discover our unique, evolving set of characteristics, and work with it every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I suddenly feel like making soup — but first, I’ll have to take a shower.