Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Finding Happiness at Work

Transform your work through identifying meaning, pleasure, and strengths.

I continue to hear from people who feel stuck in their jobs due to the stagnant economy.  Almost in desperation they fantasize about doing a major career transition (or even a total life change) as the only way to find happiness in their work—and then they’re frustrated because they can’t make such a drastic change at the moment.

Would you like to find a way to improve your current circumstances and increase your happiness at work?  In previous blog posts, I wrote about the research from Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski focusing on job crafting, and the importance of whether you frame your work as a job, career, or calling. Both of these concepts can be integral to finding satisfaction at work. 

But there is even more research about ways to improve your current work situation. Instead of changing jobs, consider changing your thoughts and perspective.

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It can be challenging to "think differently" about your work situation. In his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting FulfillmentTal Ben-Shahar notes that, “our prejudice against work, or a narrow-minded perspective of the kind of work that can be meaningful, often makes us miss the truth—which is that the potential for happiness is all around us.” (p. 109)  

It’s easy to assume that certain professions are inherently meaningful—maybe doctors, teachers, ministers— but it turns out that meaningfulness is often in the eye of the beholder, as many burned-out doctors, teachers, and ministers might tell you. Your career might contain more meaning than you realize—or you can infuse it with meaning if you choose to do so.

One strategy for finding meaning in your work (or finding an ideal new career) can be found In Chapter 7, “Happiness in the Workplace.” Ben-Shahar suggests that to increase happiness at work (and/or identify work which would better suit your personality) you need to take some time to analyze three aspects of your work: meaning, pleasure, and strengths.  Specifically, ask yourself:

  • What gives me meaning? Where do I find purpose in what I’m doing?
  • What gives me pleasure? What do I enjoy?
  • What are my strengths?  What am I good at?

You can jot down the immediate responses that come to mind, but try to take a few days to ponder these questions and add to your lists for each area.  (If you're not sure what your strengths are, consider taking the Values in Action (VIA) Survey online.) Then see if there are creative ways to combine your responses to either add value to your present work, or perhaps find the clues to a new or different career. How can your answers to the three questions intersect with one another to create micro changes (small strategies you could try at work) or macro changes (new career ideas)?

For example, suppose your top strengths are creativity, strategic thinking, communication and organization.  You enjoy playing golf, watching classic movies, playing with your children and barbequing on the weekends. And then let’s say you get your meaning from completing tasks on time, solving problems, helping others, and leading groups. How could those three areas intersect?  If you're a manager, could you host a BBQ at your home as part of a brainstorming session with your team?   If you do a lot of PR/sales work, schedule a golf outing with key clients.  What problems could you help solve at a nonprofit agency serving children?  How could you mentor younger staff to help them better organize their work?

Another strategy for finding meaning in your life and work comes from the companion CD set to the book, The Happiness Advantage. Author Shawn Achor suggests an activity he calls “The Doubler.” Each day for 21 days you simply take two minutes to write down every detail of something that was meaningful that day. It doesn’t have to have deep meaning or be life-changing— it might just be the time you spent reading a bedtime story to your child, the five minutes you took to listen to a colleague’s troubles at work, or the inspirational movie you just watched.  Doing the Doubler (so named because it “doubles” your appreciation/acknowledgement of a meaningful activity) forces you to pause and positively reflect on your day. 

Try this activity for at least two weeks (Achor recommends 21 days minimum) and then look over what you’ve written.  Is there a pattern?  Where does the meaning in your life come from?  If it’s not from your work, is there a way you could begin to incorporate meaning into your work?  For instance, if you find your meaning primarily comes from relationships, can you engage more fully with people at work?  Can you be more social, go out to lunch more or have coffee with colleagues?

Take some time to ponder the presence of strengths, meaning, and pleasure in your work.  Be sure to read more about job crafting to learn how you can rework your job without leaving it, and see if you can cultivate the habit of finding the calling in what you’re currently doing— developing this mindset will increase the likelihood that you will be happier in your current employment and even happier with any future employment as well.

©2012 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: flickr creative commons.

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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