50 Subtle Joys Experienced at Work

How to feel like you're still living your life when you're at work.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

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This article is part of a series I'm writing on underappreciated sources of positive emotion in everyday life. This one is about the subtle joys of work.

Here's a quick story: Once I heard a colleague who works with inmates refer to them as "people who are living their lives in prison" to emphasize that even in prison people are still living life. Life doesn't pause when people go to prison and then re-start when people are released, it's ongoing.

This memory popped into my mind the other day and it got me thinking that people sometimes treat their time spent at work as like their lives are on pause when they're at work, and think life only restarts when they leave for the day and on weekends. They treat work like being in prison and they're just waiting to be released to get back to their life. If you spend eight or nine hours at work a day, feeling like your life is on pause for those hours isn't ideal.

Sure there will be times when you're at work when you'd rather be reading a book at the beach, eating pizza with friends, or watching Netflix in bed, but life at work can still provide plenty of its own joys. Learning to pay closer attention to the subtle joys involved in your life at work, can help you feel happier to be there!

Here's a sample list of 50 sources of positive emotions you might experience in your work. Since the specifics of your job will be different from other readers, not everything on this list will apply to you. Consider it a springboard for your own ideas. As you read, copy and paste any items that resonate with you to start your own list. Some of these examples are from my own life, and some I've made up.

50 Types of Positive Emotional Events Experienced at Work

  1. When you utilize gut feelings at work. This provides a nice balance to the more deliberative thinking processes you use, and reminds you of how vast your knowledge and experience is.
  2. When you get to pass down knowledge or caring that was passed to you, such as you had a mentor who taught you how to accept feedback without feeling criticized and now you can help anxious newcomers to your career do the same.
  3. When a colleague completes one of your incomplete ideas. For instance, you present a half-baked idea or hunch at a team meeting and a colleague brings an element of their knowledge to your idea that results in a lightbulb moment.
  4. When a process that once felt threatening to you no longer does, like you no longer fear performance feedback because you trust that your manager generally believes in your talent and competence.
  5. When you recognize you have developed work-related fitness and stamina, like that you can now read large qualities of dense technical material without your brain feeling fried, or you can conceive big, long-term projects.
  6. When a really good idea comes through the process of hard work. Sometimes we get flashes of inspiration in the shower, but sometimes those flashes come after you've been beavering away for several hours.  
  7. When you observe a colleague being brilliant and take joy from witnessing someone else's ingenuity.
  8. When surprising or delightful events happen at work, like a client from years ago emails to update you, or a really good idea comes from an unlikely source.
  9. When the ethic codes in your work give you faith in the world e.g., that scientists don't make up data.
  10. When a weird result or observation results in a new insight, like when a piece of work you didn't expect to be popular is remarkably so. 
  11. When you revisit an old idea, or a slow hunch you've been nurturing, and it finally develops into a useful idea.  
  12. When you feel accepted at work e.g., you're a little quirky but your colleagues know you well enough not to mind.
  13. When you take a creative risk by expressing an idea you worry might be too out there, but it's surprisingly well-received. 
  14. When you express an idea that bombs/is bad but you don't feel rejected for it, and this encourages you to keep thinking and keep speaking up.
  15. Enduring relationships with interesting people you never would've crossed paths with outside work e.g., colleagues and collaborators, mentors, or even customers you get to know over time.
  16. Fleeting relationships with interesting people you never would've cross paths with outside work e.g., I often really enjoy my conversations with journalists who interview me for stories. Even if I only speak to the person for twenty minutes and then never again, I like experiencing how other people think about and approach the topics we both write about.
  17. Well-established processes that work well and contribute to having a sense of consistency in your life, like that paychecks always go out the same day of the month or that your company has a set, easy process for some aspect of your workflow.
  18. Being intellectually or physically challenged at work beyond what you would've pushed yourself to voluntarily, but it helps you grow.
  19. Experiments in interpersonal trust that come through work e.g., when you work with a new contractor on a house flip, or when you're a therapist who needs to gain the trust of a new client. Relationships that are trusting feel good and help make the world feel safer.
  20. That the rhythm of showing up to work stabilizes other biopsychological rhythms in your life, like you have a sleep/wake routine because you have to get up for work.
  21. Undemanding aspects of work that just require you to show up. Being able to mentally cruise for parts of the day can be enjoyable.
  22. When the stability of work helps you get through a stressful time in your life e.g., you can't spend all day worrying about your Mom's cancer diagnosis because you have to function at work, and you find it emotionally helpful to need to pull it together and think beyond your current situation.
  23. When you buy an outfit for work that you really like yourself in.
  24. When work gives you an opportunity to experiment with a different side of yourself, like you've never gravitated to teaching or leadership but you're taking on a student/intern.  
  25. Easy, collaborations that make your own work and skills better. For instance, I might send an article draft to an editor, get some helpful tweaks back, learn from those, and we're done.
  26. Seeing the progression of your skills over long periods, like when a task that felt daunting to start with has become routine or now people ask you to show them how to do it.
  27. When work exposes you to other people's ways of thinking and getting things done, and you adopt some of those. You might notice how other people stay organized, or you notice really good phrasing a colleague uses in their reports and you sock that idea away to use yourself.
  28. When work gives you an opportunity to collaborate with someone who can do parts of a task that aren't your forte. It's nice to not need to be good at everything yourself and let other people use their strengths.
  29. When you finally nut out a solution to a frustrating problem, whether its a door that won't hang right, debugging your code, or fixing a clunky paragraph.
  30. When you get positive feedback on your work.
  31. When you get to do work that feels meaningful to you even if it doesn't get a lot of kudos or find a big audience.
  32. When work allows you to discover strengths about yourself that you didn't know you have.
  33. When work causes you to work on weaknesses (or find workarounds for weaknesses) that you otherwise wouldn't have addressed.
  34. When work provides opportunities to be kind or generous to others just because you can, for instance, you take extra time to reply to a cold email and feel good that you did.
  35. When work contributes to a positive sense of self-identity.
  36. That work provides socializing opportunities without too much effort e.g., chatting to colleagues in the breakroom is easier than organizing to see friends.
  37. That shared work can give you topics of conversation with colleagues who are also friends but who you don't currently work with.
  38. When there's an aspect of your life that you do because it's convenient to your work, that you wouldn't otherwise do because it's not convenient to your home, like the lunch spot you love next door to your office, or the yoga studio that's five minutes walk from work. 
  39. When work gives you an opportunity to use your creativity
  40. When you bring knowledge or experience you've gained outside of your career into your work to solve an obstacle or spark a new idea.
  41. Routines you do at work that you enjoy, like making oatmeal in the work microwave every morning.
  42. Perks of work, like a great view out your office window, conference travel, or great healthcare.
  43. When you get to learn/practice a skill for work that's useful in your personal life e.g., if your work requires you to negotiate frequently and the experience you gain is useful for when you need to negotiate outside work.
  44.  That work helps you feel like a "proper adult."
  45. When your work feels like you are contributing to the evolution of your field. You feel connected to the history of your field or craft and like you are adding to what's gone before, standing on the shoulders of giants and of everyone else who has gone before you. The batten has been passed to you and you're carrying it for a while before passing it on to the next generation. 
  46. When a work task has a familiar, comfortable rhythm to it that you enjoy. For example, you have a process that works really well for interviewing a client and then writing a report.  
  47. When you have a flash of insight that causes you to see an aspect of your work differently than you ever had before.
  48. Specific pleasures associated with each phase of a hard task, such as the beginning of a creative task when there's so much possibility, the middle when it starts to come together, and the end when you deliver it. 
  49. When a way you work coalesces into your own personal, repeatable model e.g., your model for buying real estate is to buy homes between $X and X, spend $X-X renovating them, and sell for $X-X.  This helps you feel focused. On a smaller level, you might have a model/method for any aspect of your work e.g., dealing with inappropriate questions when moderating panels. You don't feel anxious because you have a tried and true solution for a recurrent problem, and utilizing your model feels good. 
  50. When someone highlights an aspect of your work as important to them that you didn't recognize as important e.g., you're a therapist and a client tells you a small comment was what resonated with them most from their last session. 

Conclusion

For many people it's important that their work feels meaningful. To be able to fully derive meaning from your work it's important to have cognitive and emotional sensitivity to the subtle joys you experience at work, rather than bluster past them and onto the next item on your to-do list. 

Doing meaningful projects is important, but if you don't detect and appreciate the subtle joys you experience while working you may feel miserable even though you're doing projects that are lucrative or have the potential for substantial social good.  Being sensitive to positive emotional experiences can also potentially help buffer you against niggles and irritations, and increase your resilience to stress.