Education is about imparting skills and information, but, in a way, it’s also about happiness. Faculty want to see their students go on to careers that will bring them satisfaction and, ultimately, make them happier people. To learn more about what makes accountants happy, we spoke with Marsha Huber, CPA, Ph.D., an accounting professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio who also holds a master’s in applied positive psychology and has been a visiting faculty scholar with Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program.
EXTRA CREDIT: Tell us about your recent research regarding happiness and meaning in the accounting profession.
HUBER: We administered a survey and had about 1,200 usable responses to questions like these: What is happiness in accounting? We used that data to evaluate questions such as: Who’s the happiest? Who’s the least happy?
EC: So, which accountants are happiest?
HUBER: It depends on what kind of happiness. For instance, one kind of happiness is general happiness—satisfaction in life.
The CPAs who experience the highest life satisfaction are those who work in nonprofits and in higher education as faculty. I think common sense would tell us these accountants feel good about what they are doing. Accountants working for NFPs told us they believe what they are doing is for “the betterment of society.” Educators wrote about “loving to teach” or “enjoying training up the next generation of accountants.” There seems to be something inherently satisfying about helping others.
EC: What other kinds of happiness are there?
HUBER: There’s also job satisfaction. We found that CPAs who work at regional CPA firms score highest on this measure of happiness.
EC: Why so? What makes accountants happy on the job?
HUBER: Our research shows the most significant predictors of job satisfaction for accountants are finding meaning at work, experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions at work on a daily basis, making a good income, and having a “calling orientation.” People with a calling orientation are those who agree with the statement that they would stay with their current job even if they were not paid, as long as they could afford to do so.
EC: Is there anything working for a nonprofit, working in education, and working for a regional firm have in common?
HUBER: Psychologists Martin Seligman and Ed Diener have said that without exception, relationships are key when it comes to happiness. Accountants working for nonprofits and universities said on the survey that they found their interactions with others, whether patrons or students, very satisfying. Regional accountants also wrote about enjoying their relationships with clients, helping grow businesses, and training new accountants. I think the positive feelings that come from helping others, whether it be society, individuals, or businesses, leads to higher satisfaction in life.
EC: Knowing what you do about happiness, what advice would you give your students?
HUBER: I usually show students a diagram of all the elements that supposedly influence happiness—primarily things like meaning, money, relationships, health, engagement, and accomplishment. I show them that, if you triple your money, it will only move your happiness up a little. But if you have all the other elements, and lose half your money, you will most likely still feel pretty happy. That is why someone in an impoverished country can feel happiness, but someone with a lot of wealth can feel unhappy.
The one thing all happy people have are good relationships. I tell students to focus on building those relationships to build their happiness.
I also tell students there are different types of happiness. There is a temporal happiness that one might experience while going out with friends or partying. There is a type of happiness that happens when people experience a condition called “flow,” when they are so engaged in something that they lose track of time. And there is a type of happiness that occurs when someone believes they are working on their calling in life.
I encourage students to cultivate all the different types of happiness to become happier people overall.
EC: Has your happiness research affected the way you teach? If so, how?
HUBER: It has. I believe that, for students to be engaged in a class, the class needs to hold meaning for them. I start every accounting course with an assignment where students interview someone in their own field to help build that relevancy.
Second, students need to have hope that they can succeed. Hope creates a “memory” of the future that will draw a student forward to see it happen. If they can envision getting an A or B in the class, they will work hard. If they think they are going to get a D or F, why bother trying? Thus, hope for a good future, a good class, and a good grade are important for me to build into my class early on. I discuss the importance of putting forth effort and finding time to learn. I also let students know that forgetting is part of the learning process, so that they shouldn’t give up when they might feel frustrated.
Furthermore, at our annual student-practitioner conference, we’ve covered topics that help people become happier, and we also talk about meaning and hope. One year, we focused our conference on an intervention that taught students how to use their strengths. We identified students’ strengths and talked about how they could better use them. We had people (students and practitioners) walking around with badges with their strengths on them.
We’ve also had professionals come in and talk about what meaning they found in their work. Usually, when you bring in guest speakers, they focus on things like interviews, résumés, and how to sell yourself.
But on our panel discussion, we asked panelists to talk about meaning. One panelist who managed mutual funds talked about how he used gamification at his job for motivation. He said that every day he treats his job as a game—he either beats the averages or he doesn’t. And then other speakers talked about how they found meaning in different ways: Helping a client. Making a difference in the community. That is a different way to look at accounting.
People have to have hope—hope for a better life, a better grade. I try to add hope to students’ lives all the time.