Confucius once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” This sounds great in theory, but unfortunately 52.3% of Americans are unhappy at work, according to a recent report by the Conference Board, a global independent business research organization. This doesn’t mean you have to be unfulfilled. There are plenty of ways to create joy in your current work environment. Here are a few things that experts agree can help you enhance happiness on the job:
1. Choose to see the glass half-full. According to Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert and contributor to Live Happy magazine, only 10% of our long-term happiness is based on the external world. The rest is a mixture of genetic predisposition (about 50%) and the choices we make on a daily basis (about 40%). This means the way our brain processes information has a much greater effect on our happiness than our life circumstances.
2. Train your brain for happiness. Neurons that fire together wire together. The more we feel joy and practice cultivating qualities like gratitude and optimism, the more happiness we’ll experience in our lives. Achor recommends “practicing happiness” before work each day. There are several ways to do this: Writing down three things you’re grateful for, meditating for five to 10 minutes (or even two, if that’s all the time you have!), and writing a positive email or journaling about a positive experience can all encourage you to scan the world for the positive and prepare you to focus on the good things at work. (You can hear more on this idea in Achor’s excellent TED talk. )
3. Work on purpose. “Finding a sense of meaning and purpose will help you love what you do, regardless of what your job is,” says Paula Felps, a science editor for Live Happy magazine. Achor says, “There’s great research coming out of Yale that shows that some people see their work as a job (just for the income), a career (long term and thus worth investing in), or a calling (you find your work meaningful and related to your personal strengths). The interesting part is that your occupation does not predict which of the three you will see your work as. People split into thirds (1/3 job, 1/3 career, 1/3 calling) for almost every job. Choose to find meaning in your work and try to use your strengths on a daily basis and you’ll find your job just turned into a calling.”
4. Pause to take in the good. Naturally, our brains are Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. This made sense evolutionarily, when it was essential to remember where the angry lion lives, and less important to remember the beautiful sunset. Unfortunately, this means we often remember the one critical remark or annoying employee but forget compliments or neutral interactions. Psychologist Rick Hanson recommends pausing to really savor and “take in” good experiences, even just for 10 or 20 seconds. Doing this, we flood our nervous systems with positive, feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin, and also reinforce the brain circuitry that will help us feel joy in the future.
5. Apply mindfulness. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you probably noticed how often our brains try to pull us into the past or spin off into fantasies about the future. Research from Harvard demonstrates that people are generally happier when attending to the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn, M.D., creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.” By practicing mindful awareness, we continually come back to the here and now and align ourselves with our current experience. This alignment is crucial, as the same circumstances can feel very different when we’re fighting them versus refraining from judgment and going with the flow. Mindfulness practice can train our brains to stay non-judgmentally present.
6. View challenges as opportunities. One thing is certain: Stressful situations will arise, no matter how wonderful (or awful) your job is. We don’t always have control over these situations, but we can control our reaction to them. Achor recommends viewing bumps in the road as a challenge … and then rising to the occasion. (His research with Ali Crum from Stanford found this subtle shift in perspective decreases the negative impact of stress by more than 20%). In Chinese, the character for “crisis” contains two sub-characters: danger and opportunity. When a difficult situation arises, try inviting yourself to find the opportunity in the crisis, and see what “crisitunity” might challenge you to do.
7. Become an alchemist. An alchemist doesn’t create gold from thin air, but rather takes baser metals and transforms them into gold. Similarly, we have the power to transmute our life circumstances by being the change we wish to see, and this capacity extends to the workplace. I absolutely love my job in television news, for example, but I have a strong meditation and yoga practice and didn’t initially find a meditative space in this environment. The solution? I started teaching mindfulness in the office and have joined forces with colleagues to bring in a health and wellness speaker series. Are there ways you can help create the change you’d like to see in your work environment? Do you have any colleagues with whom you really connect and can collaborate with on this? (Even if you’re surrounded with negative nellies, perhaps you can find one or two people who are game.) After all, anthropologist Margaret Meade famously said, ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
8. Let happiness fuel your success. According to Achor, “Happiness is the joy we feel growing toward our potential.” A significant body of research shows that this type of happiness not only makes us feel better, but actually increases productivity, sales, and triples profits. People who are happy are 40% more likely to get a promotion. Far from reducing our competitive edge, happiness gives us an advantage in the work environment, and a reason to get excited for the next day. Just like any relationship, staying happy at work can involve consistent effort and tweaking, but the benefits are well worth the effort.