How Productivity and Happiness are Related

May 18, 2021, 4:09 a.m.

Most people understand that being in a sad or depressed state will lead to drops in productivity. When going through personal troubles it becomes almost impossible to focus completely on your work. Many of us are all too familiar with this due to living through this COVID pandemic last year. So we can say that there’s this causal relationship between productivity and happiness:

Happiness → Productivity

What’s less intuitive though is that productivity is also a prerequisite for happiness:

Productivity → Happiness

Most of us associate “happiness” with “comfort.” Comfort is all around us in modern life, UberEats, GrubHub, YouTube, 24/7 access to free and real-time news and entertainment -- these have all increased our comfort levels. But somehow, actual happiness seems to be in decline.

So where does productivity fit in this modern trend? The easy access to comfort has paradoxically taken away a sense of purpose for many of us and therefore made us less productive.

If we refer to the classic hierarchy of needs, the bottom two levels have become basically guaranteed and instant access for many of us that are fortunate enough to live in 1st world countries.


The built-in sense of purpose to survive and defend ourselves is now gone and we are left to replace it by fulfilling the higher levels of the pyramid -- friendships, relationships, personal goals, achievement, and legacy.

Unfortunately, the path to achieving these things becomes less straightforward the higher up the pyramid you go. The modern world is full of artificial versions of these higher-level needs. Video games might temporarily replicate that feeling of achievement through effort, but ultimately it’s no replacement for the real thing. Same with social media; gaining followers on Instagram or socializing through Reddit might give you a similar sensation to having real friendships and community but it’s no replacement for the real thing.

Actually achieving these higher-order needs in our lives requires a plan along with consistent effort and self-reflection. This is productivity and it’s the difference between comfort and happiness. It’s the reason why you feel good about yourself after a hard workout or long study session despite being exhausted. Deep down, your brain knows the difference between real self-actualization and the instant-gratification versions.