Updated: Nov 15
I've been reading a lot of positive psychology books to understand a) how to have more joy in my life b) how much agency we humans actually have over our happiness, especially as it relates to work, and c) what work changes can my clients make to improve work happiness.
Just like anything in life, the more you practice being happy, the happier you get. But how does one practice being happy? Isn't this fake? Won't this mean you're living a lie if you pretend to like your job if you don't?
In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor emphasizes the idea that happiness is a choice. Whether it's your job, your relationships, or your health, you get to choose how you feel about it. In fact, research shows circumstances only account for 25% of our happiness. The other 75% is up to the person experiencing it. In other words, if you have a job that's less than fulfilling, there's a high likelihood you can create fulfillment without changing jobs.
Shawn's research shows there are 3 ways people perceive their work. Some see their work as a just job, a means to an end, a way to get a paycheck. These tend to be the least happy employees. Then there are those who see their work as a career. These people are usually happier than the first group. These people have often invested in their work by getting degrees and or they've spent years perfecting their skills. Then there are those who see their jobs as their calling. These people feel a sense of purpose the other two groups don't. Their work matters in a deep way, not just in their own lives, but to other people.
I know a mom who works as a convenience store cashier. She's done other jobs, including working in healthcare, but she says this job is her calling. Why? And how? Those were my first questions when she told me about her new job. She explained she loves to talk. in fact, she isn't fulfilled if she's not talking and interacting with people all day. She loves the brief interactions and the chance to make her customers smile. She sees herself as a "day brightener" and takes it very seriously. What she's doing matters to her and matters to everyone she interacts with.
On the other hand, I know PAs and doctors who've spent years helping others, yet they feel empty inside. They don't feel a sense of purpose. Often, these clients use words like "lost" or "stuck" to describe what they feel. I've been there, and it's a lonely, awful feeling that bleeds over into your personal life and takes over your mental health.
Maybe you're thinking, "Yes, but aren't some work situations 'just a job' because you need a paycheck? Isn't it a first-world privilege to be happy at work?" Actually, it isn't. In fact, Americans are programed to believe success will lead to happiness. All A's means you're successful. Pay raise=success. More degrees=success.
Unfortunately, success doesn't lead to happiness. I got the biggest bonus of my life in my 30's. It was enough to pay off a big chunk of our mortgage or buy a new car. Instead of feeling elated, I immediately started thinking about what I'd have to do to earn the bonus the next year. My brain switched over to the kitchen remodel we'd been putting off. The bonus wasn't enough to pay for a kitchen remodel, so it felt like I still hadn't reached some imaginary goal.
That's the thing. The goal posts keep moving. That's why Shawn says we need to change the framework. Instead of success leading to happiness, we now know (again, positive psychologists like Shawn study this) the happier a person is, the more likely they are to be successful. In fact, a big study with Metlife insurance agents revealed that on a happiness scale, the top 10% of agents in terms of optimism were responsible for more than 90% of the top sales.
Is it possible to find happiness in this line of work? Yes. According to positive psychologists who study this type thing, any job can be crafted to suit you and your needs and result in happiness. Any job. The term for this is "job crafting."
Job crafting involves 3 aspects: 1) Task adjustment: You figure out which tasks you enjoy the most or the least and tweak the job to include more of the tasks you like and less of the ones you don't. 2) Relationships: You change your relationships within the job. If you love working with kids, you figure out a way to incorporate this. If you're an introvert who loves being alone and having music blaring while you work, you figure out a way to make this happen. 3) Perception: You change your your view of your work. You may still do the same tasks but see them differently. If you work with kids, you might see yourself as a mentor instead of a babysitter. If you're a janitor, you view yourself as a cleaning ninja, or you work to make the school feel safe and clean which makes you a safety officer of sorts.
Any or all of these 3 things have the potential to transform your current job, regardless of the job.
I'd never heard of job crafting, but this is what eventually happened with my current job. When I accepted the job, I knew the first two years would be spent at a satellite office an hour from home. It was a small office in a retirement community, so I spent 99% of my time doing skin checks on retired folks. I also stopped taking students because I was in a rural area. After a year, I started feeling exhausted and a sort of dread settled over me when I'd get in the car to start the drive.
Dread eventually led to feelings of emotional detachment, a symptom of burnout. I couldn't figure out why I felt this way. This was, by far, the easiest dermatology gig I'd ever had. Furthermore, even though I had a two-hour round trip commute, I loved listening to podcasts, watching the farms roll past, and having time to think. I had two fantastic medical assistants, my pay was generous, and the patients were friendly and the work wasn't complicated. So why wasn't I happy?
It took another year before I made the connection. I wasn't utilizing my strengths. I'd stopped precepting and teaching students, and I was bored. I loved problem-solving and being a rash detective. My schedule rarely included anyone under 50, and consisted of doing dozens of skin checks but rarely rashes. I also realized I was mostly alone other than my two MAs. I felt lonely. Lastly, I lost the sense of community I had at my previous practice where I'd see church members, friends, and even family members as patients. Even though I was in a community, I felt no connection since it was an hour from home and I went directly to and from work.
My job crafting evolved over a two-year span. I had no idea this was a "thing," I just knew I no longer wanted to stay in medicine if this was how I felt. The first change was transitioning out of the satellite location to our main office 15 minutes from my house. This renewed my sense of community and allowed me to work with PA and doctor colleagues daily, strengthening my relationships. I also began seeing a wider variety of skin problems in patients of all ages. My boredom went away but I was still missing the learning and teaching components. My schedule was too busy to allow students and it seemed after 20 years in medicine I'd hit a ceiling in terms of learning. Sure, I would continue to go to conferences and learn about new medications and treatments, but I craved the type of learning that challenges and excites. I considered learning cosmetic or surgical procedures but this didn't feel right. Instead, I hired a Spanish tutor and signed up for functional medicine classes online. I also volunteered to teach a class for older adults through the local university on finding purpose after retirement.
Even though I added more to my plate the effect was paradoxical. I felt more energized with my new tasks. I began seeing my job differently. This changed my relationships with my patients and coworkers. I was able to offer patients insights into why they had certain skin problems based on factors like diet, stress, etc. Two years later, I took a life coaching course which gave me additional ways to interact with people around me. I learned to ask questions and listen for insights. This led to helping other "lost" medical providers figure out their path to purpose.
What can you do to improve work happiness and see your job as more of a calling? I'm glad you asked because this means you're making a conscious choice to seek happiness. After listening to Shawn Achor on 4 podcasts and reading his book, The Happiness Advantage, I've put together a list using many of his recommendations as well as some of my own.
Ikigai is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “a reason to get out of bed in the morning.” I'm going to give you ideas to increase your ikigai.
10 steps to increase work happiness regardless of your circumstances
Regardless of your reality, regardless of your circumstances, choose happiness. Choose the story you tell yourself and the thoughts you allow into your head.
Look for happiness like your life depends on it (it does!) by spending two minutes a day writing out 3 new things you're grateful for and recalling a positive experience or interaction --the more details you can recall, the better.
Connection and community. Each week, consciously come up with a relational goal. Who do you want to reach out to? Who do you want to spend time with? These things rarely happen without effort, so choose to put forth the effort.
Service. Find a way to give to others. Whether it's volunteering, praying or sending good vibes to people, find a way to do something for other humans. My grandmother lived to be 104 and she used to say, "I can't get out and help people, I can't even knit for people anymore, but I can still pray."
Spend time reflecting on what falls at the intersection of what you love, what you're good at, what the world needs, what you can get paid to do. Strengthsfinder is a great resource for determining what you're naturally good at. Or, do what I did. I emailed two close friends and asked them what they thought my top attributes were. What did they see that I couldn't?
For your current job, draw 4 squares and fill them in with your current tasks and responsibilities using these headings: What I'm good at, What I'm not good at, What I'm interested in, What I'm not interested in. The goal is to figure out how to do more of the things you're good at AND interested in and less of the other two categories. One of my coworkers has become the go-to girl for training newbies. She enjoys and she does a great job. Another coworker discovered her inner tech genius to become the office nerd for our electronic medical platform.
Work peeps. Who do you like working with or being around? Who do you prefer not to be around? If you work in healthcare, are there certain medical conditions you love treating and others you don't love? What do you need in terms of work relationships? What's available to you?
Rewrite your current job description as if you're doing what you love and making a big impact. Exaggerate the parts of the description you enjoy, eliminate the parts you don't. For example, if you're a therapist, maybe you see yourself as an inner-child healer or a marriage mender. Or if you're a high school teacher like one of my friends, you see yourself as a fashionista, teen girl mentor, and menstrual therapist.
Do you need to explore your interests and strengths outside of work first to test the waters? During my lonely work phase I started a supper club with neighborhood couples. I also took yoga teacher training when I craved peace and centering in a hectic work life.
Diversify your meaning portfolio. What currently gives your life meaning? Is it work? You kids? Connections? If work is at the center of your "hub" how can you add in some other things like service, community, etc?
Remember, you don't have to move to a greener pasture. You might be able to add fertilizer, remove weeds, and landscape your current pasture to fit your needs. I've seen clients stay in the same role but get more happiness and meaning by tweaking what they do, how they do it, how they see it, or who they work with.
Reach out if you'd like 1:1 help with these steps, I'd love to talk!