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Classical philosopher Aristotle made important contributions to logic, criticism, rhetoric, physics, biology, mathematics, ethics and politics. But the Greek sage also offered some wise counsel on our state of mind when he said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
In our time, when blame and victimhood seem so prevalent, the notion of being responsible for your own state of mind may seem foreign to some. But it’s backed by science as well as good sense.
Beverly E. Jones offers some solid guidelines in Find Your Happy at Work: 50 Ways to Get Unstuck, Move Past Boredom, and Discover Fulfillment.
She’s a master of reinvention herself. Early in her career she was a writer for TV and radio. Then, while earning her MBA, she shifted to leading university programs for women. Then she went to law school. Today she’s an author, speaker, podcaster, and coach. Over the years, she has mentored and supported professionals of all ages to enjoy successful careers. Her work has been featured by the New York Times, CNN, NPR, Money, and Forbes.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Your book title clearly telegraphs your belief that people are largely responsible for their own happiness in the workplace. What’s your message to those who seem to insist that their unhappiness is usually someone else’s fault?
Beverly E. Jones: In any job, there are things you can’t control. But there are always countless ways you can make each day feel better and also create more meaning and success in your work. This might involve shifting your attitude, adjusting your habits, expanding your skills, tweaking how you approach your tasks, or finding different ways to relate to colleagues, bosses and direct reports.
As an executive coach, I have clients who are miserable at work and want to change jobs. Among them was Diego, who felt bored and unappreciated. But he didn’t want to resign until he found the perfect opportunity. So while Diego launched his job search, I encouraged him to also concentrate on making his current position more satisfying.
Diego moved quickly to develop a new expertise and found ways to use it at work. He improved his listening skills, which helped smooth several difficult relationships. And he changed the way he tackled a major responsibility, making it more interesting for him and better for the team. Diego’s situation improved so much that I wasn’t surprised when he ended his search and decided to stay with his employer, at least for now.
Duncan: What do you see as the keys to finding satisfaction at work?
Jones: Widespread research and my own experience say you’re more likely to feel satisfied at work if you keep focusing on three basic factors: your sense of purpose, the people associated with your job, and satisfying and productive ways to perform your tasks.
I think of this trio as the “Engagement Triangle,” and I often talk with clients about these three keys.
A sense of purpose is essential because it’s easier to love your job when you work for more than just a paycheck. Your purpose is something larger than your everyday concerns. It might involve a product you send out into the world, it could relate to your employer’s vision, or perhaps it’s simply your personal reason for working so hard.
Other people have a huge impact on how happy you are at work. Your job can feel more meaningful because of colleagues, clients and others who are impacted by your activities. And the many folks you encounter throughout your career will help shape your life.
Sometimes you might think your performance is largely beyond your control. And yet you can make endless choices about how you actually do your tasks. You are more likely to love your job if you invest serious effort in your activities, if you keep building your skills, and if you remain alert to small ways to improve your results.
Duncan: How can people improve their work experience by changing their personal habits?
Jones: Habits are routines you follow automatically, without thinking about them. They make life simpler, but sometimes they don’t serve you well. You can sabotage yourself with habits like wasting time online, gossiping with colleagues, or delaying your most important task until late in the day.
So often the first step is noticing your current habits, then finding areas where you want to replace poor routines with better ones. A good way to do this is to keep an activity log for a week. This can get real about how you spend your time.
When you select a behavior to change, it’s often smart to break it into small, specific pieces. Julie is a client who noticed that her habit of watching old movies late into the night left her tired and inefficient in the morning. She needed to reduce her viewing time. But to make the change feel less drastic, she adjusted her evening routines very gradually.
To start, each night for two weeks she set an alarm to remind her to turn off her screen fifteen minutes earlier than normal. Once she was used to responding to the alarm, she gradually reshaped her evenings, a little at a time, until she began to enjoy a much earlier bedtime. Julie saw how replacing a bad habit with a better one requires repetition. And she learned that the more reps she did, the more instinctive her new nightly routine became.
Duncan: What role does cultivating an attitude of gratitude play in a person’s engagement in the workplace?
Jones: Gratitude is an inherently positive emotion. Experiencing a sense of thankfulness actually changes how your brain works. By focusing on things you appreciate, you can quiet your anxiety, stimulate greater confidence and improve your ability to get along with other people. A few moments of cultivating gratitude may leave you calmer and more able to fully engage in whatever is going on at the moment.
Duncan: Exactly what is “positivity,” and how does it help people have a better experience at work?
Jones: Positivity includes happy emotions, like joy and gratitude. But it’s much bigger than that. Positivity involves the way you interpret whatever is going on around you. A positive mindset can help you get through difficult times by making you hopeful and focused on the future.
Positivity encourages you to keep going despite challenges, and that perseverance improves your performance. Also, optimism can help you lead and collaborate with others, because people like being around positive individuals.
Even grouchy folks can develop positivity. Like many people, I wasn’t born an optimist. But I developed a more upbeat view of life by fighting the negative voice in my head and reminding myself that I have the necessary skills and can keep trying.
Duncan: What is one simple tip you can offer someone who wants to be happier at work?
Jones: Learn something new.
Learning is satisfying, and the more deeply you engage, the faster time flows. Beyond making work more fun, continuous learning brings huge career benefits. It helps you remain relevant in the workplace and become resilient in the midst of change. And when you are in learning mode, you are likely to spot opportunities, and other people may regard you as interesting.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.