When it’s hard to be happy at work, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on work. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

If work is bringing you down, you could read a Dilbert cartoon, bash your boss on Facebook (not recommended), or practice your sullen resignation. Or, you could try implementing some of the strategies that work psychologists have gleaned from studying people in those no-good-very-bad work situations. Read on to find some of the common head-banging work dilemmas and how to begin improving them.

Problem: I work too much

Do you wake up with a to-do list in your head? When you finish work, does the number of check marks on it tell you how successful the day was? (Or perhaps you never “finish” work at all?)

If these sound familiar, you might be a workaholic, addicted to the self-esteem boost of achievement. While workaholics can do quite well at work, they tend to fare worse outside of it. They have lower self-esteem than other people and a big gap between their confidence at work vs. their confidence in the rest of life. Workaholism is linked to worse mental and physical health, and relationship problems in and outside the office.

People with a calling are especially susceptible to becoming workaholics, because what could be more important than saving the world? (Answer: your mental health.) Authors Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffy offer these tips in Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work:

  • Get loved ones to hold you accountable for work-life balance. Tell them about your desire to work less and ask them to hold you to it – no ifs, ands, or “urgent” meetings allowed.
  • Schedule nonwork activities. Hobbies, time with family, and relaxation should be just as important as the other items on your to-do list.
  • Find your calling outside work. Work doesn’t have to be the only aspect of life that makes us feel competent and valuable to the world. Mentoring, volunteer activities, and relationships can have significant meaning, too.

In this video, Huffington Post cofounder Arianna Huffington explains to Marie Forleo how a head injury convinced her to change her lifestyle:

Problem: My coworker is annoying!

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer call negative interactions with others “toxins” – and like a poison, their effects extend far and wide. Coworkers who don’t show respect, get in our way, or undermine us at work not only discourage us (to put it mildly), but also discourage other employees who witness these events.

Jane Dutton describes an extreme case she calls the “death spiral”: when a competent person turns into a basket case because a destructive coworker makes them question their competence, feel insecure, and become consumed by self-doubt. This is the power of relationships gone wrong.

Whether your coworker is simply annoying or truly vicious, consider these suggestions by Dutton:

  • Admit there’s a problem. Sometimes we sit and simmer and somehow believe it’s our fault, so recognizing a toxic relationship can be the first step.
  • Take back control. We may feel like we’re the helpless victim of the world’s most frustrating personality, but we still control our own minds. In one toxic relationship, an employee set herself the goal of making the other person smile. Then every dreadful encounter turned into a little game. 
  • Set boundaries. Find ways to reduce your interactions with this person, or put up some psychological armor in the form of humor. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is keep your head down and try to fly under the radar.
  • Strengthen yourself. Try to build up your positive resources as much as possible by seeking out supportive relationships at work, practicing optimism, and bolstering your self-esteem. In the end, you might even come to realize that dealing with this person makes you stronger and helps you learn.
  • Transform the relationship. If you want to turn the relationship around, you can try to have a discussion and hash out a way forward. To prepare for it, make sure you understand what you’re hoping to achieve in the relationship, and try to figure out what the other person’s goals are, too.

Read “Can I Be Happy at Work if I Don’t Like My Teammates?

Problem: I want to quit my job, but I can’t

Even though our work tasks might feel meaningless, there are other ways to find meaning at work. The article below invites you to consider which of eight common sources of meaning you might cultivate on the job:

ReadEight Ways to Find More Meaning at Work

If all else fails, there is some case to be made for that sullen resignation I mentioned above. Ryan Duffy did a study on research psychologists who have a host of boring job tasks, such as doing evaluations and preparing documents to support the accreditation of their graduate school. They way they coped with these mind-numbing tasks was simple: “resigned indignation.” If we literally can’t do anything about a negative work situation, sometimes the best approach is to accept it and just plod ahead, rather than prolonging the suffering by fighting something we can’t change.

But that’s truly the backup plan, the worst-case scenario. While parts of our job might just need to be accepted, other parts are probably open to improvement. You could even use your work tools to make those improvements: add a daily calendar reminder to chat with a coworker, or put a five-minute meditation break on your to-do list. Even seemingly small events at work can have a big impact.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of happy work

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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