Three strategies for being happier at work or school

by Dr. Steve Wright

Are you like the guy in the commercial who has a parrot who repeats “Not another day.” “Can’t take this.”? If you don’t like your job, or school, or whatever you spend most of your day doing, there are several actions you can take other than complaining.

Making a big change

One possibility is to find a new job. This may take courage. Also, if you’re considering a different kind of work (or even a different work environment), it might be better to try out your new idea first by getting some experience with that new kind of work through volunteering, or by getting a part-time job without quitting your old job. If nothing along these lines is practical, find out whatever you can about the new work situation first before taking the leap. You don’t want to find out the hard way that the new situation is even worse!

Making a small change

What if it’s not a reasonable option to change jobs, or you really don’t want to for some reason? In that case you might look for ways you can transform your work situation so it gives you more satisfaction. People are happier in their work if they can be fully engaged, if they’re using their personal strengths, and if they feel like they’re making a contribution. There may be some changes you can make – or request to have made – that allow you to do these things more. If you’re bored, if you’re not able to use your abilities very fully, try taking on something more challenging, either by requesting it or by just voluntarily doing it even if you don’t have to. You may find that work becomes more fulfilling, and side benefits may include more interesting and higher-paying jobs in the future.

If you can figure out a way to do your work more efficiently and free up some of the time you saved as a result, you might be able to do something else worthwhile, either for your employer or for yourself.

Making an extracurricular change

Another option is to approach your happiness at work from the other side: Doing things outside of work that make you happier may cause some of that positive frame of mind to spill over into your work life. At the very least, it should increase your overall happiness. Just like a good vacation can rejuvenate you, a hobby or some activity you enjoy can put you in a better mood not only when you’re actually doing it, but afterward. Especially if you haven’t figured out a way yet to make your work more satisfying, make room in your life for some activity you really like.

For me the last few years that’s mainly been ballroom dance (broadly defined, including West Coast Swing, Argentine Tango, and especially Latin). It’s great because it’s good exercise (I’m a bit over 6′ tall but I went from a 35″ waist to 32″ and got more toned), there’s a social element that’s even friendlier than in most shared activities, it involves music, encourages creativity, and is a lot of fun. It’s also good for your brain: it facilitates mind-body coordination, cultivates bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and gives your gray matter a workout through learning new dance figures and details of technique. I’ll write more about this in a future post. I’ve even participated during this time in large regional, national, and international DanceSport competitions, working my way up through 6 levels to Pre-champ Latin finalist.

As a teenager I really got into chess (and other strategy games) and played in tournaments. Next I took up guitar, and got good enough to briefly consider a career as a musician (they do have very high job satisfaction). In each case these activities were challenging and rewarding, a learning experience and fun. They allowed me to immerse myself and be fully engaged, experiencing sometimes what psychologists call “flow.”

Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths

Harvard psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar encourages people to begin the process of finding the right work for themselves by asking three crucial questions: What gives me meaning?” “What gives me pleasure?” “What are my strengths?” Looking at the answers and finding areas of overlap may help. He recommends taking more time than just jotting down what comes to mind. In terms of what we find meaningful, for instance, he suggests: “We may need to spend time reflecting, thinking deeply to recall those moments in our lives when we felt a sense of true purpose.”

While this exercise is intended to guide a person in making a major career decision, it can be applied to the all three strategies above for increasing happiness. Extracurricular activities that people find meaningful, for example, can be very rewarding and nourishing.

Written by Dr. Steve Wright on October 29th, 2008

2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Nobi says:

    Some people may not have any outstanding strengths but many interests and but can’t decide to pursue just one activity.
    They drift here and there but at some point they need to make money to survive, so they must take on any job that is available.
    The world is not waiting for you to express your talents and you might not be able to earn money at all with your talent.

    Only if you have a well paid job as Harvard psychology professor then you can elaborate about things like that, but real life is different not just theorie.

  2. Everyone has strengths. One person’s particular strength may be more impressive than someone else’s. Some people may have a single prominent strength, but more likely they have several. Some people have strengths that are very pronounced and noteworthy (compared to their other strengths, or to other people). And some of those people have many interests. Some strengths – like hope, gratitude, love, and zest – have been found to be directly associated with life satisfaction, but researchers have discovered a number of factors involving strengths that lead to a happier life. Even though the science on these questions is quite new, we do know some things from these empirical studies; it’s not just empty theorizing.

    It’s true that some people who have many interests and can’t decide among them will delay commitment and may drift. But sometimes what looks like drift may end up being a very constructive process of discovering what really fits for you. In many cases just diving in before you’re 100% sure is a good way to find out whether the actual day-to-day activity in a certain job or career really suits you.

    Not being able to decide what kind of work you really want to do is a particularly hard issue to study, even harder than most issues in scientific psychology, which are almost always complex and elusive. Decades ago, psychology was heavy on theory and light on solid evidence. That has changed, and there are thousands of people who understand some important body of scientific psychological research. This research gives us insights into the human situation just like any body of scientific knowledge does about its subject matter. There is also scientific psychological research that has tested whether some of these insights actually work when implemented in the real world. In any area that can be studied scientifically, you’re a lot better off if you know what the science says – certainly far better than just using the subjective analysis of your personal life experience alone.

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