How to cultivate happiness at work

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 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 you don’t like your job, you might think that the only way to find happiness at work is to quit and get a new one. Not so, say work psychology researchers Amy Wrzesniewski, Justin Berg, and Jane Dutton. We have the power to change how we spend our time at work, or at least change the way we think about it. This isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier than suffering day after day of draining drudgery. 

1. Craft your job

Wrzesniewski, Berg, and Dutton call this type of change “job crafting,” and it can make us more engaged, purposeful, and fulfilled on the job. They identify three ways we can mold and shape our jobs into something a bit more beautiful:

  • Task crafting. Sure, we have certain results that we need to deliver at work, but within those parameters most jobs allow for some flexibility. Task crafting means changing the tasks we do (say, by delegating tasks or volunteering for new ones), allocating our time differently, or using different tools and methods. If you hate reading emails but check your inbox compulsively, maybe allocating a half hour at the beginning and end of the day would help your sanity.
  • Relational crafting. Cultivating positive relationships at work and minimizing the time you spend listening to your cubicle-neighbor complain will change your experience of work for the better.
  • Cognitive crafting. Even if nothing changes on the outside, we can change our attitude toward work. For example, a construction worker could reframe his sweaty toil as creating a beautiful home for a young family; a copyeditor might forget about commas and italics and think about giving writers peace of mind.

Studies have shown that job crafting can make us happier and more productive at work, even if we aren’t pursuing our calling on the job. The official Job Crafting Exercise is available online for $35, but Wrzesniewski, Berg, and Dutton summarize it in the article below. Read the stories they share, then try job crafting for yourself:

Read “Managing Yourself: Turn the Job You Have into the Job You Want

For more background, Wrzesniewski explains in this video how talking to hospital cleaning staff helped her refine her understanding of job crafting: 

2. Use your strengths

The Job Crafting Exercise mentions strengths, but what if you don’t know what your strengths are? We tend to spend our time obsessing about our faults, and the things we’re good at can slip under the radar. Take this test to identify your top strengths scientifically, or consider this: When did you feel at your best in the past few weeks? Why did you feel that way, and what were you doing well? Use the list of strengths from Week 1 to identify what strengths you were exhibiting, and then try to remember other times you’ve shown those strengths.

Once you have a few top strengths in mind, try to use one of them in a new and different way each day at work. If humor is your strength, send a department-wide email on Wednesday morning wishing everyone a happy Hump Day. If gratitude is your strength, take some extra time to thank a colleague or mentor. If prudence is your strength, make sure to bring up your concerns in the weekly meeting.

Researchers studied people who did this very exercise, and they were happier and less depressed at the end of the week and six months later. It feels good to be strong and authentic.

Positive business expert Chelle McQuaid explains how she used job crafting to create a daily strengths habit that helped her survive an unappealing, year-long project:

3. Improve your relationships at work

In her book Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections, Dutton invites us to reflect on the three aspects of high-quality connections and how we might improve them. Pick the area you struggle most in, and follow her suggestions this week:

  • Respectful engagement. Recall that respectful engagement requires being present and attentive; being genuine; acknowledging others’ thoughts, feelings, and actions; listening actively and empathically; and speaking in a collaborative rather than combative way. Dutton invites you to think about which aspect is hardest and practice that. For example, if you tend to surf the web during conference calls, make a point to pay more attention and stop the compulsive multi-tasking. 
  • Task enabling. Our coworkers might help us by giving us mentorship, helping us change our job description, or encouraging our personal development. Other coworkers help us by teaching us about office politics or taking on some of our extra work. Make a map of your “enablers” at work by writing down all the people who support you directly or indirectly, including people from the past who still inspire you. If you have lots of enablers, make sure to thank them for their help; if you don’t have many, find ways to seek out help and support at work.
  • Trust. We show trust in actions and in words. A trusting coworker might share a personal struggle they are going through, or connect you with their favorite mentor. Trusting managers give us more freedom and responsibility, and they don’t feel the need to look over our shoulders all the time. For the Trusting Behaviors exercise, write down the names of the people you interact with at work and the ways you convey trust to them. How could you show more trust to the people around you?

Chicago TV anchors Robert Jordan and Jackie Bange have a happy work relationship. Instead of spending their breaks in tired silence, they invented a secret handshake/dance routine that makes them, their staff, and now millions of people happy. (Maybe this wouldn’t work in your office, but you get the point.)

4. Journaling about work

You might think that answering surveys every day by email would be drudgery, but many of the participants in Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s months-long study were sad to see it end. It turns out that reflecting on the events of the day is a cathartic exercise; it can help us process what’s going on, keep track of our goals, and see patterns and themes in our personal interactions and performance. 

Inspired by their participants, Amabile and Kramer suggest that you spend a few minutes at the end of work to journal about the events of the day, focusing on these questions:

  • What event stands out in my mind from the workday, and how did it affect my inner work life? [“Inner work life” is their term for your emotions and motivation at work, and your perceptions of the job, the organization, and your coworkers.]
  • What progress did I make today and how did it affect my inner work life?
  • What nourishers and catalysts supported me and my work today? How can I sustain them tomorrow?
  • What one thing can I do to make progress tomorrow on important work?
  • What setbacks did I have today, and how did they affect my inner work life? What can I learn from them?
  • What toxins and inhibitors [i.e., obstacles to good relationships and progress] impacted me and my work today? How can I weaken or avoid them tomorrow?
  • Did I affect my colleagues’ inner work lives positively today? How might I do so tomorrow?

Once you’ve done this journaling for a while, you can look back and try to identify trends and patterns – like Whenever I work with Joe, I make mistakes or I get a big boost from interacting with customers.

In this video, Amabile tries to convince those who might “gag at the thought of keeping a diary” to give journaling a shot:

Choose your happiness practice

Do you want to change your to-do list or your relationships at work? Or perhaps just spend more time reflecting and getting some perspective? Choose the work-happy exercise that fits your situation:

  • Craft your job: Try to make your job more ideal by making three little improvements each day for a week.
  • Use your strengths: Identify your top character strengths, then try to use one in a new and different way each day for a week.
  • Improve your relationships at work: Do one of Dutton’s reflective exercises to consider how you engage with, support, or trust others at work – then use those insights to make improvements.
  • Journaling about work: Fill in Amabile and Kramer’s survey at the end of each workday for a week, and see if you can learn anything about what makes you happy at work.

Which exercise did you choose? Share it on the Year of Happy Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What does happy work look like?

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of happy work

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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