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How to be happy at work

We spend an awful lot of time at work. Most of us, the bulk of our waking hours. And when we’re happy there, chances are we’ll be happy in other areas of our lives too.

There’s studies that back this up and it’s been observed that happy people are typically more engaged, productive, and creative. They’re also less likely to miss work, quit, or experience burn out.

Both the University of Warwick and Oxford University found happiness had a positive effect on productivity: not only are happy employees able to do more work in the same timeframe, but the quality and impact of their efforts was generally greater too.

Although research from Indeed found 36% of people are unhappy at work. The same survey found 91% of people planning to leave their current job say happiness will be an important factor in choosing their next role.

Happiness at work is clearly important, but it’s both hard to define and difficult to measure. Although small things can make noticeable differences. For instance, going remote has been seen to increase employee happiness by 20%.

You probably don’t need happiness defined for you. What makes us happy will differ from person person. But you know it when you feel it.

It’s seeing your best mate’s face light up when they pick you out of a crowd. It’s hitting your targets at work and your manager sending out a company-wide email giving you a great big digital pat on the back. It’s the cat adjusting on your lap as your partner snores in front of the TV, looking around the room and thinking “this is everything I ever wanted”.

In attempting to pin down a simple, more general definition of what happiness is, we can go with Harvard Psychologist Dan Gibbons who says happiness depends on the way we think about our lives, rather than what actually happens in them.

Expectation versus reality. Although it’s not always as simple as:

Expect good things to happen + they happen = happiness

Or expecting good things to happen + they don’t = unhappiness

Even when things don’t go as we might plan for or hope, it is still more than possible for us to be happy.

It just isn’t possible to be happy all the time.

Sanctus Practice Lead Dr. Albert Viljoen says what’s important is that we develop the ability to meet all our moods in whatever form they arise.

“Sometimes it’s OK not to feel happy. Accepting that our mood fluctuates actually creates a sense of ease. Instead of trying to chase happiness, embrace whatever mood you’re in and look at what contributes to it – whether it’s high or low mood, anxiety or anger – see the emotion as a signal and use that information to make more informed choices.”

Did you click on this article because you feel as though you’re chasing happiness at the moment? Or are you allowing yourself to feel the way you need to feel about a certain situation?

Because chasing after happiness might make it harder to attain. Happiness often occurs as a byproduct of certain favourable conditions being met. A bit like trying to get to sleep.

“If you try really hard to sleep, good luck! You’ll probably be awake all night. But if you allow yourself to just be in the bed, allow yourself to be present, sleep comes naturally. Happiness, sadness, grief, loss, anger – emotions and moods come as they need to.”

This sentiment is echoed by people coming to the end of their lives. The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing is a book by former palliative carer Bronnie Ware.

According to Ware, the five most common regrets shared by people nearing death were:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Notice how the last one isn’t “I wish I had been happier” or “I wish I’d experienced more happiness” but “I wish I had let myself be happier”.

In some cases (not all) happiness is something we have to allow to happen to ourselves if we want to truly experience it.

A video went viral a few years ago of former Google executive Mo Gawdat talking about his perspective on happiness after his son passed away quite suddenly on a family holiday.

“Nothing I could have ever done… could bring [my son] back. I can choose to suffer. Or I can choose to accept life, as harsh as it has become. Reset. Make that the zero point. And try to make it slightly better than it is today.”

Happiness is not a destination we reach or a state we should seek to attain and live in constantly. And happiness at work operates under very similar principles to being happy in general.

There are of course unique challenges in the workplace. Systems and processes you have to adhere to. Colleagues you have to deal with. Work you have to do.

The trick is not to force or chase after happiness. But to be present and aware of your feelings and needs, and respond to them accordingly. And to embrace happiness when it presents itself, even in mundane things. In fact, especially in mundane things.

Found the perfect uncharted lunch spot walking distance from the office? Threw a ball of paper directly into the recycling bin on the first attempt? Received positive feedback and didn’t immediately collapse into a puddle of self doubt?

Drink that moment in. Be there and sit with it and enjoy it.

It is fleeting and the next one is not guaranteed.

Sanctus Coaches help people connect to their true selves, get on top of their personal and professional development, and lead happier, healthier lives through the guidance and support of a professional. For more on how Sanctus Coaching works, click here.