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Ruth C White Ph.D.

Happy at Work

Using positive psychology to flourish - and find joy - in your worklife

Diyet Uzmani
Source: Diyet Uzmani

Too many people are unhappy at work and that is hardly the way to spend most of the day. Taking action to make work more enjoyable and fulfilling goes a long way to reducing stress and burnout and creating happier and healthier workplaces and workforces. Applying the principles of positive psychology to the workplace is one way to make work a place where you flourish and feel fulfilled.

According to Dr. Joe Accardi, founder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Network, positive psychology focuses on how to help people prosper and lead happy and healthy lives. The term 'positive psychology' was first coined by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1950's, and Martin Seligman, who is considered one of the 'fathers' of the positive psychology movement popularized the term in his classic, 2002 book, Authentic Happiness. Later he developed the PERMA model of happiness that includes 5 key elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. These factors are explored in his 2011 book, Flourish.

Positive emotion is focused on being optimistic, enjoyment - gained from creativity and intellectual stimulation - and thinking positively about the past, present and future. Gratitude and forgiveness create positive emotions about the past, mindfulness and enjoyment increase our positive emotions in the present and optimism and hope build positive emotions about the future. At work this means that you seek out challenging assignments that have you using your talents and doing work that you enjoy. It also means that you believe that you can do what it takes to accomplish your goals. And when it comes to the past, instead of thinking about 'failure', think about the lesson and what you learned from an experience, and how it made you better at what you do now and in the future.

Engagement is the state of 'flow', where you are immersed in a task or activity that you enjoy, and which holds your full attention. It is related to mindfulness in that you are focused only on one thing in the present moment. A Gallup poll found that only 33% of Americans are engaged at work and worldwide that number is only 13%. Disengaged workers are less happy and less productive. Engaged workers like being at work and enjoy what they do. Engagement is how you do your work and not necessarily related to WHAT you do. It's about working with passion and feeling a connection to the work that you do. You can find 'flow' in even the most mundane of tasks, because 'flow' is about attention and focus and being fully in the present.

Relationships shape our lives and our work lives are no different. Connection and support from each other is a foundation to living a fulfilling life. And building collaborative teams that function well are a good strategy for finding purpose and meaning in your work. Humans are social beings, and the more connected we feel the more engaged we are at work, and the more productive we are. So find your tribe at work by connecting with your colleagues beyond sharing space during your workday. Share a morning coffee or lunch with a colleague and go out with a group after work for a meal or beverage. It will make your time at work much more enjoyable if you enjoy the people with whom you work.

Meaning gives you purpose beyond yourself. Understanding the impact of what you do keeps you going when work gets challenging, and helps to prevent burnout. Even if you are not working in an environmental non-profit or saving children as a social worker, you can still find meaning in your work. Connecting with the mission and vision of your organization helps you see the 'big picture' beyond your desk and your team. For example, if you are a salesperson you can focus on making the experience of buying be one that your clients enjoy, or consider the impact that what you are selling has on the life of those who buy it. So that instead of being all about closing the deal, you become all about changing the life of the buyer.

Accomplishment makes us feel good, and acknowledging the small ones as well as the big ones, helps us with those positive emotions mentioned above. Reaching goals for their own sake helps us feel good about ourselves and about our place in the world, and gives us a sense of self-efficacy. So go ahead, and check off those items on your to-do list and celebrate them as you do. Paying attention to what you DID do instead of what you DIDN'T will make you feel fulfilled, motivated and inspired.

Changing the way you feel about what you do can change your life because work is where you spend most of your time. Too many Americans are unhappy at work and that is a real tragedy because it adds to workplace stress, which has a negative impact on performance, as well as both mental and physical health. Sometimes it is easy to forget why it is you do what you do everyday, and that what you do makes a difference in the world. Applying the principles above to your work-life can change the relationship you have with your work and help you flourish, not only at work, but in all areas of your life.

The "pursuit of happiness" is one of the three examples of "inalienable rights" that are described as 'self-evident truths' in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. So claim your constitutional rights and find happiness in your worklife this year.


About the Author

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S.W., is a stress management expert, diversity consultant, and mental health advocate, and author of The Stress Management Workbook and the forthcoming Everyday Stress Relief.