What does happy work look like?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 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. 

Hating work is such a universal pastime that we’ve invented comic strips, movies, and expressions (TGIF!) to communicate just how terrible it is. It’s now customary to answer “How are you?” with “Ugh, busy” or “Stressed!!!@#$@#,” and those rare people who love their jobs are looked at with incredulity (and a hefty dose of envy).

But if we’re willing to wade out of the cliches and take a serious look at our jobs – you know, those things that consume 1/3 of our lives? – we would discover that change is possible. Work can be happy and fulfilling, and we don’t have to be a millionnaire or a caretaker of a tropical island either. This week looks at three factors that make work happy: finding a calling, using our strengths, and cultivating a positive work environment.

Discovering a calling

When we think of happy work, many of us immediately think of finding the right job. Are we at home in nature, teaching surfing or working with animals? Are we born leaders, ready to guide a corporation or a city? With the enthusiasm of high schoolers in the guidance counselor’s office, we long for work that excites and energizes us.

Researchers call this type of work a “calling.” A calling gives us a sense of meaning; it’s work we would do even if we weren’t getting paid for it. We feel somehow drawn or pulled to this work, either because it ignites passion within us or it’s what society needs of us. Many callings involve serving others, like being a doctor or working at a nonprofit; they make us feel we’re making the world a better place.

A calling is contrasted with two other types of work:

  • A job: A job is work that we do simply to get paid. Most of the time, we’d rather not be working, and we’d take a different job if it paid more.
  • A career: A career is work that gives us a sense of achievement and accomplishment. Our goal is to get promoted and move up the career ladder.

Although these categories are a bit simplistic, they do capture a key distinction: whether we primarily work for money, for success, or for enjoyment. A 1994 study found that only 15% of working adults would call their work a calling, though callings are the most fulfilling. Next week, we’ll look at ways to find a greater sense of calling in whatever job you have now. 

Exercising our strengths

One clue that we’ve stumbled on a calling is that we get to use our strengths at work. Positive psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson created a handbook of 24 character strengths, grouping them into six categories of virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These positive traits are valued by nearly all cultures around the world. 

When we exercise a signature strength, we feel authentic, powerful, and delighted. Work that uses our signature strengths is energizing – and next week, we’ll learn how to incorporate our strengths at work. In the meantime, see if you recognize yourself in some of these strength descriptions:

  • Appreciation of beauty: You seek out beauty and excellence and experience awe in the face of them.
  • Citizenship: You work well in a group and respect your team members and leaders.
  • Curiosity: You are open to new experiences and thrive in situations of uncertainty. You aren’t easily bored.
  • Fairness: You have a strong sense of morality and believe in treating people equally, without regard for your feelings or prejudices.
  • Forgiveness: You forgive and give people second chances. You aren’t vengeful and don’t hold a grudge.
  • Gratitude: You’re thankful for other people and circumstances. You don’t take things for granted.
  • Humility: You’re modest and don’t seek attention. You don’t see your accomplishments as special.
  • Humor: You’re funny, and you enjoy making others laugh.
  • Ingenuity: You are creative and street smart. If you want something, you’ll find unique and original ways to get it.
  • Integrity: You are honest and transparent in word and in actions.
  • Judgment: You think critically and are open-minded to different perspectives. You can weigh facts objectively, without your feelings getting in the way.
  • Kindness: You enjoy making others happy, even if you don’t know them well.
  • Leadership: You successfully organize activities and treat group members equally.
  • Love of learning: You are the type of person who loves school, reading, and museums. You’re probably an expert in something, just because you love it.
  • Loving and being loved: You have strong relationships, where you can accept and give love.
  • Optimism: You have hope and expect good things, so you plan for a happy future.
  • Perseverance: You’re industrious, finishing what you start. You meet or exceed expectations, but don’t give yourself unattainable goals.
  • Perspective: You are wise, and people come to you for advice.
  • Prudence: You think long-term, weigh your options, and exercise caution.
  • Self-control: You can regulate not only your actions but also your emotions.
  • Social intelligence: You are aware of the feelings and motivations of others and of yourself, and you can use that information to handle social situations well.
  • Spirituality: You have strong beliefs and a sense of purpose. You understand your place in something larger, whether it’s religious or not.
  • Valor: Despite fear, you can face difficult physical and emotional challenges.
  • Zest: You feel passion, inspiration, and energy when embarking on a new day or new activity.

Figuring out your strengths isn’t just an intellectual exercise. This video, with clips from people all around the world, explains that character strengths represent the very best within us, the people we want to be:

Creating a positive work environment

Although the type of work we do matters, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer found that everyday events at work also play a big role in how happy we are. Even the smallest events – a few words from our boss or an email from a customer – can boost positive feelings and motivation, and shift our perspective on our jobs and our coworkers.

Over the course of several months, Amabile and Kramer conducted a survey of almost 250 employees on 26 teams. At the end of each day, the employees would fill in an email questionnaire about what happened that day and how they were feeling – creating a total of more than 12,000 entries. Based on everything they wrote, Amabile and Kramer found that three types of work events were most likely to boost happiness:

  • Progress. Progress at work can be big or small, from completing a project to finding some important information to learning a skill. We know we’ve made progress when we get positive feedback from a coworker, or from the work itself – like the programmer who fixes a bug so his app finally works. In their study, 76% of the days when employees’ moods were highest included some kind of progress – progress was the most influential positive event that could happen at work. Progress gives us satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, energizes us for our next task, and makes us more willing to tackle challenges.
  • Catalysts. Amabile and Kramer use the word “catalysts” to describe events and circumstances that help us get our work done. To work happily, we need to have enough time and resources at our disposal. We need to have clear goals, while at the same time having freedom to figure out how to meet them. We need to be able to share our ideas and get help from others. And whether we succeed or fail, we need to be able to learn from what we did right and what we did wrong. All these factors are catalysts that, when present, give us an immediate boost and help facilitate progress. When employees’ moods were highest, over 40% of them had experienced some kind of catalyst that day.
  • Nourishers. But work isn’t all about productivity, or we would be robots. We’re also social creatures, and nourishers represent those positive interactions we have with our colleagues at work. It could be a boss carefully listening to our suggestions and putting them into practice, a coworker empathizing with our work-life balance struggles, or a department toasting our fifth work anniversary. Nourishers were present on a quarter of the highest-mood days in Amabile and Kramer’s study.

Watch Amabile explain the importance of progress – with examples from the diaries of those employees she studied – in this video:

Business and psychology professor Jane Dutton believes in the power of relationships at work, so much so that she wrote a whole book about it: Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. In her view, high-quality connections come down to three factors:

  • Respectful engagement. Do your coworkers pay attention when you’re talking, and acknowledge what you’ve said? Do they treat you as if you have something valuable to contribute, or are you just in their way?
  • Task enabling (similar to Catalysts above). Helping someone out with their work not only helps them be more productive, it also shows that you respect them and that they are worthy of help. This, in turn, builds connection between the helper and the recipient.
  • Trust. Distrust is all too common in the workplace, where nasty coworkers sometimes take credit for our work or use personal information against us (“She couldn’t handle the promotion – she already told me she’s too overloaded juggling work and home.”) When trust is lacking, we put up our guard and waste time on wondering about the unsavory motivations of our colleagues. Trust, on the other hand, smooths out our interactions and allows us to be more authentic.

Before we dive into getting happier at work, take the next few days to observe your work environment. Are you pursuing your calling? Have you ever thought about what your strengths are, and whether you’re using them at work? (At work we typically use our skills – writing, selling, designing – but not always our strengths.) Could your work relationships be improved? Next week, you’ll select one area to work on for the rest of the month.

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate happiness at work

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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