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4 Steps to Achieving Workplace Happiness

“Find your bliss,” people often say. “Do what you love.” That may be easier said than done, but experts agree that by no means should we make do with the hand we've been dealt – everyone has the ability to move toward happiness.

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Why Does Work Matter?

All sorts of things make up our lives. But work is a biggie. "We're a work-obsessed culture," says Dr. Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist and executive coach in San Francisco. "We spend so much time at work -- we live to work." In fact, the average adult spends up to a third of his or her waking hours at work, according to a recent review of Gallup studies published by the American Psychological Association entitled "Well-Being in the Workplace and its Relationship to Business Outcomes." Additionally, up to 25 percent of one's life satisfaction can be traced back to work.

According to Dr. Jeannette Samanen, a life coach and founder of Inner Wisdom Coaching, our feelings toward work are important because they not only affect us on the job, but in other areas of our lives as well. "If you're bored or unfulfilled, you'll feel unhappy and it will have ripple effects on other things in your life as well -- like your health and relationships."

However, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat Pray Love, played by Julia Roberts in the movie), the majority of us can't jet around the world for a year to figure out what makes us happy. And with unemployment hovering around 9%, switching jobs or letting go of the one you've got isn't exactly easy. But, according to Dr. Samanen, there are things one can do to find happiness in work -- no matter the economic situation.

"A lot of people feel they need to leave their jobs to do what they really care about, what they really love, but that's not necessarily true," Dr. Samanen says. "It's a matter of being able to extend our ideas of what's possible, and creating space in your life for what you really want to do." With the right mindset, finding happiness may be easier than you think.

Step 1: Hello, Me. Nice to Meet You.

To start, step back and figure out what makes you tick, and for that matter, ticked-off. Ask yourself: What do I like about my job? What don't I like? What is frustrating me? Pinpointing your feelings can help paint a picture of what needs to change, and what needs to be figured out in order to get there.

"Clarify what it is you don't know, and start looking for answers," suggests Dr. Samanen. You may know you want to be the next Steve Jobs, for example, but not how to get there -- or it could be that you are simply unsure of the type of work that would make you happy. Dr. Samanen recommends doing loads of research to find answers. Use the Internet, network with people in various fields, and fully investigate your possibilities. This research will help you shape clear career goals.

2. Something to Work Forward To

Whether it’s a complete job change or changes to the job you've got, once you've identified the adjustments you want to make, set some goals to make them happen. Goals can range from resolving to let the little things go to going back to school for a degree that might qualify you for a promotion or career move. If you have something to work towards, you'll be motivated as long as you set the "right" goals. Here's a hint: money, cars and houses aren't it.

"Set goals that fit with your purpose, mission and passion," Dr. Brusman suggests. "If the goal is inherent to who you are as a person, accomplishing it will make you happy."

3. A (Baby) Step in the Right Direction

You may resolve to leave your job or just to leave on time each day -- when it comes to making change, start with the manageable stuff first. "It's so essential to take small steps," Dr. Samanen says. "The smaller your steps, the more doable they are, and you'll begin to build momentum." One small first step is to think of any adjustments you could make fairly easily at your job -- limiting overtime hours, or enrolling in a degree program through your company's tuition reimbursement program, perhaps. Make a list and prioritize it. Pick one or two changes that would have the most impact on your enjoyment and then come up with some creative solutions to the problems. You might be surprised at how your ideas are received.

"A lot of times, it's a matter of being creative about how to make your job better," Dr. Samanen advises. "People don't want to rock the boat at work, but it is possible to work with your boss to come up with solutions to improve your happiness, like work-from-home days. Challenge your assumptions about what's possible -- and know it never hurts to ask."

4. Stop Playing It Safe

Step outside your comfort zone to find out where your real boundaries are. Once you know what you like, what you don't, what you can deal with, and what you can't, the important thing is to keep moving forward.

"It's a universal human tendency to stick with what's safe -- it's in our genes," Dr. Samanen notes. But in an unstable job environment, keeping up momentum can actually be the difference between controlling change and having change control you.

Michelle Jefferson, an accountant who completed her MBA two months before being laid off, got her pink slip at a time when she was also dealing with the illness and ultimately, death of a parent. The loss of a loved one on top of the loss of a job would be enough to put almost anyone into a tailspin, but Jefferson has a markedly different attitude.

"I've taken the necessary time to deal with my loss, and I'm ready to get back into the 'real world' with a renewed sense of purpose," Jefferson says. "Life is too short to spend doing something you really can't stand, no matter how much it pays. I'm on the search for what really makes me happy -- something creative, something I can really shine at and not just be another cog in the machine."

The Key to a Cog-Free Existence

In the end, staying true to oneself is what matters. "Happiness is all about that fit," notes Dr. Brusman. Knowing what "fits" you best in your career will help you line up your goals and set you up for happiness. Traveling the world can always be your Plan B, but -- just a hunch -- that may be more enjoyable as a tourist than as a distracted soul-searcher.

After all, isn't pursuing -- and maintaining -- happiness really what life's all about?

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