The best way to be happier at work is to take personal responsibility for your workplace well-being. Once you do that, any job can be better than it is right now.
Here are four ways you can improve your job yourself instead of relying on your boss or your company to change:
1. Make a friend at work
People with one friend at work are much more likely to find their work interesting. And people with three friends at work are virtually guaranteed to be very satisfied with their life, according to extensive research from Gallup published in the book Vital Friends by Tom Rath. These findings are independent of what a person’s job entails, and what their home life is like.
On one level, this isn’t surprising. We’re better equipped to deal with hardship if we have friends near us, and we have more fun when we’re with friends. So a friend allows us to deal with the ups and downs of work much more easily.
We often think of work and life as separate, and consequently fortify our home life with friends. But we need different friends for different contexts. Having someone you can count on at work to care about you and understand you feeds your soul in a way that used to apply only at home.
Of course, once you have this information, you have to figure out the most effective ways to make friends at work. Because friends don’t just materialize in your cubicle — you need to cultivate them.
2. Decrease your commute time by moving closer to work.
More than three million people have a commute that lasts more than 90 minutes. Many of them justify this commute by saying that their job is worth it, or that it allows them to have a bigger house. But the commute may be doing them great harm at home and at work.
Humans can adjust to almost any amount of bad news, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” he shows that we think losing a limb will be terrible, but in fact we adjust to it pretty well. In fact, in the long run it generally doesn’t affect our level of happiness.
A commute is different, though. It’s impossible to adjust to because the way in which it’s bad changes every day. So the tension of not knowing what will be bad, and when it will be bad, and not being able to control those things, means we’re unable to use our outstanding mental abilities to adjust.
Here’s the clincher, though: Even though people tell themselves it won’t happen to them, a bad commute spills over into the rest of the day for almost everyone. If you have a bad commute on the way to work and you walk into the office in a bad mood, that’s the mood you’re likely to have all day. And if you have a bad commute on the way home, you’ll probably still be grouchy by the time you go to bed.
3. Know when it’s not about your job.
I’m not certain whether this is good news or bad news, but the connection between your job and your happiness is overrated. In general, the kind of work you do isn’t going to have huge bearing on whether you’re happy or not.
To be sure, your work can make you unhappy (see No. 2 above, for example), but work isn’t going to give you the key to the meaning of life or anything like that.
Still, you can do a quick check to make sure you have a job that’s good for you. A good job:
• Stretches you without defeating you
• Provides clear goals
• Provides unambiguous feedback
• Provides a sense of control
If you have these things in your job and you’re still not happy, it’s not your job — it’s you.
So maybe it’s time to start looking inside yourself to figure out what’s wrong, instead of blaming everything on your job. I’m a big fan of getting help when you feel stuck. Sure, we can all get ourselves through life, but it’s often easier to get where you want to be faster if you have someone to help you overcome your barriers.
To this end, you need to know if you need a career coach or a shrink. And if your job meets the criteria on the above list, you could probably use help from a mental health professional in order to find ways to get happier.
4. Do good deeds.
Help people. Be kind. Don’t think about what you get in return. Just be nice. In this way, you can make the world a better place in the job you have right now.
Take personal responsibility for your happiness during the day, and do things that make you feel good. You’ve heard a lot of this before. If you go to the gym, your mood will get better (and your mind will be sharper). If you eat healthy food, you feel better than if you go to McDonald’s for lunch. And if you do random acts of kindness, you get as much out of it as the person you’re being kind to.
But most importantly, stop looking for your work to give your life meaning. The meaning of life is in your relationships. Cultivate them. A good job is a nice thing to have, but only in the context of larger meaning.
If you’re happy outside of work, where you don’t rely on your boss or your company, then finding happiness at work will be that much easier.