How to find happiness at work

Upwards of two-thirds of us are either neutral in regards to our jobs, which means we don’t care, or we’re actively disengaged, according to figures from Gallup. Disengagement and happiness go hand in hand, so an awful lot of people are not happy at work. Unhappy people don’t perform as well as they could. “When we’re negative, cynical, pessimistic, we simply don’t give our all, and our brains don’t work that well just when we need people’s brains to be working beautifully”, says Annie McKee, director of the Penn CLO and Medical Education programmes at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches leadership and emotional intelligence.

Teleos Leadership Institute

Her research has shown three elements of a more happier life at work:

  • People feel that they need to have impact on something that is important to them, whether it’s people or a cause or the bottom line. They need to feel that their work is purposeful, and it’s tied to values that they care about.
  • We need to feel optimistic that our work is tied to a personal vision of the future. The organisation’s vision isn’t enough. As good as it may be, we have to know that what we’re doing creates a big part of our future.
  • We need friends at work. We’ve learned over the course of our lives you shouldn’t be friends with people at work, that it will cloud your judgement. But in fact we need to feel that we are with our tribe in the workplace, that we belong, that we’re with people that we respect and who respect us in return. We need to feel supported.

McKee also has a good idea what does not deliver happiness for many people: Ambition that goes into overdrive. “A lot of us are susceptible to what I call happiness traps. We end up doing what we think we should do.” We take that fancy job with the big brand name, not because we love it, but because we think we should.”

Looking for bliss in external factors can be harmful, too. “Happiness starts inside each of us”, says McKee. It’s tempting to blame that toxic boss or that horrible organizational culture, but if you want to be happy at work, you first have to look inside and ask what is it that you want? What will make you feel fulfilled? Which happiness traps have you fallen prey to? And get yourself out. 

Also do not mix up happiness with hedonism. Happiness isn’t just about feeling good every day. That is hedonism. A bit of stress is necessary since it pushes people to be innovative.  But to be content in our working life we do need a foundation of purpose, hope and friendships. “We do need to know that what we do matters at work”, says McKee, “that we are doing something that is tied to our future, and that the people we work with are great.” 

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Barbara Bierach