Step one: START WHERE YOU ARE
Being happy at work involves more than just enjoying the job you do. Other factors, such as how valued you feel, the flexibility of your hours, your level of autonomy, the relationships you have at work … these all have an impact on how engaged and satisfied you feel. When it comes to the job itself, things like how well the work aligns with your personal interests and values and the degree to which your skillset (and even your personality) matches what’s required of you also contribute to your job satisfaction.
Perform an impartial appraisal of which aspects of your working life are satisfying for you and which ones need some adjustment. You don’t need to burn it all down and start again (unless you really want to)! Sometimes it just takes a widening of your perspective to be able to see the opportunities around you, and to find ways to derive more joy and fulfilment from what you do every day.
Perhaps you can’t change your boss or your working hours. What can you change? There are a whole lot of things that are entirely within your control, and when you identify the things that will have the biggest impact on your happiness, you have the best chance of focusing your energy where it counts. Making a few little tweaks to your actual job, or to the way you think about your job, can make all the difference to how you feel when you wake up in the morning. For some people, it might be a case of cutting through old self-limiting beliefs or overcoming your fears to find the courage and motivation to pursue more meaningful work.
Step two: PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
There’s a common saying that everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life believing it is stupid. We’ve probably all felt this way at one time or another when we’ve been tasked with something we don’t find easy, enjoyable or rewarding. Of course, we all have the capacity to develop skills in any area (that’s what having a growth mindset is all about), and sometimes the most rewarding achievements are those that are difficult and challenging. But when you can harness the power of your own and other people’s natural abilities, interests and motivations, things tend to flow much more smoothly.
When you fully grasp the concept of each person having a unique configuration of strengths, not only are you likely to be kinder to yourself, but you’re also more inclined to have patience with those who don’t possess the same strengths as you. Any environment that brings people together to achieve a common objective will be much more harmonious and productive when everyone understands and appreciates individual differences
It’s easy to become frustrated with people who don’t pick things up as quickly as you, or who spend time on things that you don’t consider to be important. But when you look at people, both individually and collectively, through a strengths lens, you can appreciate that everyone contributes in their own way, and if you leverage those differences, you can supercharge people’s happiness and their contribution.
Step three: MAKE IT MEANINGFUL
Sometimes, finding meaning in work is less about the job than about how it supports your broader lifestyle goals and values. You might not be changing the world, but your work can affect your sense of self-worth, financial stability or work ethic. Work provides structure and routine. It gives you a reason for getting up every day, and provides an opportunity to get out and interact with other people.
Some working mothers in particular value being a role model for their children, demonstrating through their actions that women are able to be present and available as a parent as well as having a career, helping to support the family financially and contributing to society in a positive way. This can be especially important for those women who perhaps grew up in a household where their mum stayed home after having children, or whose parents divorced, meaning their mother had to go back to work despite having no real qualifications or experience. Women typically retire with significantly less superannuation than men, and this is another important reason that many women continue working.
If you don’t find the nature of your work particularly meaningful, it might help to consider the important role work plays in your life, and the value it offers you beyond the job.
Step four: FIND YOUR FLOW
When author Cal Newport wrote about the benefits of doing ‘deep work’ in his book of the same name, much of what he described was exactly what we refer to when talking about flow. Deep work, he says, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. ‘Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.’ And yet, he says, ‘Most people have lost the ability to go deep – spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.’
The most obvious barrier to full immersion in an activity is the fact that we live in a noisy world, full of distractions, and rarely experience the opportunity to work on a task uninterrupted. No matter the goal, you will achieve more and be more satisfied when you create the conditions that allow you to immerse yourself deeply. You will do your best work, produce the highest quality outcomes and, most importantly, achieve a lasting sense of satisfaction.
If most of your working life is spent reacting to other people’s demands and responding to interruptions that hijack your time and attention, you will definitely benefit from creating the conditions for flow.
Step five: BE TRUE TO YOU
Probably one of the most common situations in which people put on a false front is when they feel that their competence, skills or knowledge are lacking, and they’re reluctant to admit to those shortcomings. We typically go through a whole interview and assessment process to get a job, which means there are certain expectations about the capabilities we bring. It can feel dangerous to admit you don’t have all the answers, or that you’re not really sure what you’re doing, particularly if you work in a competitive environment.
A reluctance to take emotional risks is sometimes the result of our individual conditioning, rather than a reflection on the organisation where we work. We all hold ideas about not being good enough (smart enough, successful enough, creative enough, etc.), and we can have a tendency to project that self-judgement onto other people. In other words, if I am judging myself harshly, I will assume you are judging me in the same way. We do this in our personal lives just as much as in our professional ones
If you know you are not expressing your authentic truth because you’re worried about how you will be received, it’s up to you to cultivate more self-acceptance – along with a hefty dose of self-compassion, because that’s a tough struggle. It’s hard to open up and ask others to take you as you are if you have difficulty accepting yourself as you are. The more you can affirm and express your strengths, know what truly matters to you and align your actions with those values, the easier this will become. By being honest with yourself and those around you, speaking up when you have a problem or asking for help when you need it, you inadvertently give everyone around you permission to do the same. This kind of honest communication and willingness to be human deepens connections and trust in teams.
Step six: CULTIVATE POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS
There is enormous power in expressing appreciation. Showing gratitude for someone who has helped you out in some way, big or small, will boost oxytocin, building trust and rapport. Feeling appreciated is more motivating than a pay rise. When you express your gratitude to someone, be as specific as possible about what you admire or appreciate about them. Small gestures of kindness go a long way towards building positive relationships and, because of the contagion effect, they will boost the mood of the whole environment.
Celebrating diversity also contributes positively to relationships in the workplace. Organisations with the most diverse management teams report higher levels of profit and more engaged and productive employees. It makes sense that if an organisation demonstrates inclusivity by representing a broad mix of gender, race, ethnicity, ability, age, socioeconomic background, and religious or political affiliation, anyone in that workplace will note that there is a culture of acceptance and trust will increase. Diverse workplaces provide a great opportunity for people to learn empathy and an appreciation of difference, to build bridges, challenge biases and therefore grow personally.
People often mistakenly think that competition brings out the best in people, but in fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. Competition can destroy trust and rapport because it makes people feel threatened. This makes them more likely to hoard ideas, and less willing to offer solutions to problems unless they can be sure they’ll get the credit.
An emotionally healthy workplace encourages contribution for the greater good over and above individual self-interest. Where there is trust and collaboration, everyone has the opportunity to work towards meaningful goals and to stretch themselves beyond what they might normally be capable of. This is the foundation of happiness and meaning at work.
Step seven: BE BRAVE
People often think that if they could just develop more self-confidence, they would be able to apply for the job, speak up in meetings or have those awkward conversations. What they don’t realise is that it is taking action that builds confidence, not the other way around. As long as you are alive, you won’t ever completely eliminate fear – not if you hope to live a full, rich and meaningful life. So rather than aiming to remove all the discomfort from our lives, we should instead seek to increase our capacity to tolerate that discomfort. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
When you fully grasp this, you stop waiting for the perfect, risk-free option and start taking imperfect action. When you take action, regardless of whether you experience success or failure, you gain concrete evidence that you can handle whatever comes your way.
There is no quick fix or shortcut that will ever be a substitute for lived experience. Taking action despite your fear is the surest way to build confidence and cultivate resilience. Perhaps it would help to think of risk-taking as a form of hypothesis testing. A scientist starts every experiment with a hypothesis, which is essentially a calculated guess. If the outcome of the experiment does not support the hypothesis, the scientist doesn’t take it personally. Instead, they review the data, form a new hypothesis, and test it. Guessing and testing, reviewing and evaluating – this is the way forward. If you can treat your own actions as a form of hypothesis testing, you remove the unreasonable expectation that every decision or action you take must be the right one.
In order to take action despite your doubts and fears, you need to feel confident that you will be okay even if things don’t work out exactly as you’d hoped. This is the definition of resilience: knowing that you will not be defeated by failures or setbacks; that you have it within you to dust yourself off, learn from your experience and try again.