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Your boss has a huge effect on your happiness, even when you’re not in the office

(Washington Post illustration by Christopher Ingraham)

People who think of their immediate supervisor as more of a “partner” than a “boss” are significantly happier with their day-to-day lives and more satisfied with their lives overall, according to a new working paper by a team of Canadian and Korean economists.

For middle-aged workers, the difference between a partner-boss and a boss-boss works out to about 0.4 points on a 10-point life satisfaction scale. In the realm of happiness research, that’s huge: “equivalent in life satisfaction terms to more than a doubling of household income,” according to the paper. The researchers found similar effects for supervisors' influence on their workers' day-to-day happiness.

Over the years, happiness researchers have consistently found that happiness usually follows a U-shaped curve throughout the course of a person’s life. People are happy and satisfied with their lives when they’re young, but that starts to drop off considerably in middle age, when the competing pressures of work and child-rearing are likely in their greatest state of conflict. Only as people approach the later stages of their lives in their late 50s and beyond — when the kids move out and work starts to wind down — does happiness tend to start trending upward again.

The Canadian and Korean economists wondered whether there were any factors that might mitigate that midlife happiness dip. They posited that social context might have a lot to do with it. If work stress is driving part of the decrease, for instance, you’d expect that workers with different work environments might follow different happiness trajectories through middle age.

To find out, they turned to the Gallup-Healthways daily poll, which surveys hundreds of adults each day on a variety of topics. One of the questions that survey asks is how employed respondents view their immediate supervisor: as a “boss” in the traditional sense? Or more as a “partner”? Pooling millions of responses together over a period of several years, the researchers plotted life satisfaction, by age, dependent on the type of supervisor respondents said they had.

As the chart at the top of this story shows, people with boss-supervisors exhibit a much more significant drop in life satisfaction between their early 20s and mid-40s. But for people with partner-bosses, the first half of the curve is much flatter. Both groups, however, see a big rise in life satisfaction as they age out of their 40s.

“We hypothesize that workplace social quality is more important for subjective well-being in mid-life than elsewhere,” the researchers write, “since mid-life years are for many people a time of stress created by competing demands from their work and family lives, and since these pressures are more easily reconciled when the workplace environment is more congenial and supportive.”

The researchers also found that other social factors appeared to protect people’s happiness in midlife. Marriage is a big one, with married people showing much less decline in happiness as they approached middle age. So was the amount of time people had lived in their current community.

The researchers do caution, however, that although the associations they observed between social context and life satisfaction in middle age were quite real, their study, by design, can’t definitively say whether the effect is causal. There’s a chance, for instance, that people who are naturally happier are more inclined to rate their bosses as more supportive, and to be in stable long-term relationships.

But they say that the “power and prevalence” of the links they observed strongly suggest that future evidence will back up these initial findings.