Oskar Wolthoorn was on the bus on the way to a festival when he saw a young man wearing mismatched socks. He struck up a conversation. It turned out that the man had read the book The subtle art of not giving a f*ck by Mark Manson, a call to lead a contrarian and, above all, idiosyncratic life. Since reading the book, the stranger no longer cared what other people thought about his socks. During the interview, Wolthoorn is also wearing mismatched socks.

Favourite genre: Fantasy and high fantasy
Primary motivation: Relaxation – “My mum taught me to read before going to sleep, and I still do it. Reading is part of my bedtime routine. Sometimes I get tempted by my phone and I stay on it for too long, but I try to avoid doing that.”
Number of books per year: Ten
Last book read: The Mistborn Saga – Brandon Sanderson

Happiness at work

After the encounter on the bus, he bought the book. At the time, he was working in a financial institution: his first job after graduating with a degree in Psychology and Business Administration. In lectures, he had learned that workers’ performance depends in large part on their happiness at work. When people are happy in their job, they are willing to do extra work and help out their colleagues.

Wolthoorn assumed that everyone was aware of this psychological insight, but the reality turned out to be different. In the world of work, he noticed that KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) were considered more important than the happiness of workers. “Within the organisations, I cautiously enquired whether the happiness of employees was also important as a goal to aspire to. That wasn’t where the focus lay. That’s when I realised there was a big difference between what organisations could do to influence worker happiness, and the reality.”

Money and big cars

At the same time, he watched his colleagues striving for higher salaries, rapid promotions and big cars. He got sucked into those ambitions too, even though there was a part of him that knew they wouldn’t bring him happiness.

What was that thing people said about money and happiness? He went back to the psychological literature to find out. “It really cleared my head. Science shows that, above a certain minimum, money doesn’t bring extra happiness. I noticed that I was being influenced by the people around me who were pursuing materialistic goals. It was no longer clear what was important to me personally.”

Then I saw the young man with the socks on the bus. “In hindsight, this story totally makes sense, it’s completely logical, but at the time I was really trying to figure out what I wanted.”

The subtle art of not giving a f*ck made Wolthoorn question his standards and values. The book motivated him to not let himself be caught up in what other people consider important. He now tries to follow that advice in his life and work. It also influenced his decision to talk about the book in this interview. “It’s a popular book, not really scientific, and maybe a bit mainstream, but I had to admit this book held some meaning for me.”

The science behind happiness

For Wolthoorn, happiness is the most important thing to pursue in life. Happiness for himself, and for the people around him – and in his work as a researcher at EHERO, the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation, he is committed to making more people happy. Even when asked what makes him happy, he refers to the scientific literature. If his physical and mental health is okay, if he has a roof over his head and no money problems, friends and family he can share experiences with make him happy – along with a positive mindset and energising work.

In his free time, Wolthoorn made a list of the key pillars of happiness – all based on the science. He organised a workshop for his relatives and got them to philosophise about how they apply or could apply scientific insights about happiness in their own lives.

Position of influence

He does something similar in his work: he is helping two healthcare institutions incorporate the concept of happiness at work into their policies and raise awareness of the matter among their staff. Employee satisfaction depends on many factors, including a sense of purpose, responsibility and appreciation. He tries to give people insight into the science on happiness. “When they assess their job, people tend to focus too much on one aspect of their work, such as paperwork. I try to help them understand that that is only a fraction of their work.”

Wolthoorn is aware of his responsibility as an adviser. “I do research and provide organisations with options and insight. I’m in a position of influence. Sometimes, it feels patronising. But I still try to steer people in the right direction. It’s important to do it well.” For that, he relies on the science.

Oskar Wolthoorn studied Labour and Organisation Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. He took a minor in Business at the University of Nottingham and graduated with a Master of Business Administration. For the past two years, he has been working as an adviser and researcher at EHERO, the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation; a scientific institute that aims to promote better decision-making in society by sharing scientific knowledge about happiness.

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