So you want to be happy at work? Well I want to live in a subtropical paradise, sipping piña coladas and jamming with the reincarnation of Bob Marley. It ain’t gonna happen. Sadly, life is more often about needs than wants.
Living in the real world doesn’t mean your nine-to-five (or indeed eight-to-eight) has to be an ordeal, however. There are plenty of people for whom tomorrow morning’s alarm marks the start of another thrilling adventure, rather than an outbreak of hives.
Irritatingly, these people also tend to be more successful. Happy workers are productive workers, after all. Some fascinating research a few years ago found that if investors had put their money in firms listed as ‘great places to work’ over the previous 25 years, their average annual returns would have been an impressive 3.5% higher. All this employee engagement stuff really pays off.
If you’re not one of those fortunate few, despair not. Here are some simple things you can do to make your work life happier, more fulfilling and more successful. Disclaimer: they won’t all be easy.
1. Find what makes you happy
The journey from office misery to workplace fulfilment begins not with a single step, but with a map. Before you do anything else, you need to understand what makes you happy and what doesn’t.
It isn’t the same for everyone. Some people might thrive in the high-stakes, pressurised world of an FBI hostage negotiator; for others, contentment is to be found trolling through endless lines of code.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what your passion is. The idea that we all have something that we love to the exclusion of everything else and all we have to do is find it is a highly dysfunctional belief, according to Bill Burnett, who runs Stanford’s famous design your life course.
‘Only 20% of people have a passion, or it comes after years of working in different fields, or it’s not just one thing. If you have one, that’s great, but for the rest of us it’s not helpful.’
Instead, try out lots of different things, to figure out where your skills and interests collide.
(Incidentally, it could be that you’re never going to love work, no matter what it is. Some people are just lazy – and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Just accept that your desire for downtime is going to compete with your ambition and your love for caviar, and prioritise accordingly.)
2. Slow down
Chill. Breathe. Relax. Unless you’re performing CPR or diffusing a bomb, the speed with which you go from task to task won’t mean the difference between life and death.
Taking your time can reduce stress-inducing feelings of panic, pressure and helplessness. It will also make you more effective at what you do. ‘We spend too much time reacting instead of actually creating stuff and thinking about how to do things differently,’ says management guru Charles Handy. Carving space in your diary to think will benefit both creativity and strategic focus.
3. Be kind
People who play nice appear to benefit from a form of office karma. According to research in the Journal of Social Psychology, participants who were asked to engage in a daily act of kindness for ten days ended up significantly happier than those who weren’t.
Happier people tend to be kinder too, creating a virtuous circle. Just remember: smiling and holding the door open are good; hiding all the biscuits in your coat pocket and then scoffing them when you think no one’s looking, not so much. You know who you are.
4. Bond with the team
One of the advantages of kindness is that it makes it easier to make friends with your colleagues, or at least to make the office friendly. This can benefit more than just your state of mind.
‘Critical in anyone’s career success are the relationships we build inside and outside the workplace. Strong relationships within teams are important in fostering resilience. And one of the factors driving employee engagement... is how connected we feel to colleagues,’ says Rebecca Alexander, executive coach and MT veteran.
So while you may well have ten episodes of Orange is the New Black to binge watch when you get home, it couldn’t hurt to go for a pint with the guys once in a while. It’s either that or teambuilding exercises, which nobody wants.
5. Don’t neglect the rest of your life
‘Love work, get a life,’ says Henry Stewart, author of The Happiness Manifesto. ‘The world, and your job, needs you well rested, well nourished and well supported.’
If you’re the ‘live to work’ type, this might seem redundant advice, but if all your happiness derives from your job and you therefore neglect everything else, you’re putting all your wellbeing eggs in one basket.
Set aside time for hobbies, friends and relationships and – whether you’re at the pub with your mates, playing netball or on a hot date – don’t forget to turn off your notifications. Checking your emails when you’re with company is just rude.
Image credit: Fraser Mummery/Flickr