As far as I can tell, most Americans consider it normal to be unhappy with their jobs. The idea seems to be that you have to put in your time during the week, suffer through having to do tasks you don’t feel like doing, then get in some fun over the weekend if you can.
This is not a recipe for happiness. After all, most of us spend a huge proportion of our waking time working. If we don’t like our work, than that’s a lot of time spent unhappy and stressed.
For some people, certainly, the solution is getting a different job, even if expenses need to be scaled back to make that possible. But the key to happiness in a job isn’t always what we’re doing: sometimes it’s just how engaged we are.
The new Gallup book (from the people who do the polls), Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, makes the argument based on extensive research that a fulfilling life is one where a person is doing well in five areas: career, social, physical, financial, and community. “Career” in this case can mean employment, self-employment, full-time parenting–even a hobby. Regardless, happiness in a career turns out to have a lot to do with engagement.
Rath and Harter distinguish between people who are generally engaged in their jobs (interested in what they’re doing, focused, involved) and people who generally aren’t (distracted, waiting for the day to end, dissatisfied, bored). They employed a series of pretty clever tracking techniques, including a device that would beep at certain times during the day and prompt subjects to record what they were doing and how they were feeling about it; heart rate monitors; and monitoring cortisol levels in saliva. (Cortisol is a chemical in the body that is closely linked with stress.) From these and other data, they offer a chart measuring happiness over the working day for an average engaged person versus an average not-engaged person.
Of course the people who were engaged were happier, but the specific comparison is striking. Unengaged people come in unhappy, get unhappier after the first hour or so, become more interested and less unhappy during the middle of the day, and then experience a slide in happiness throughout the afternoon that only stops with a sudden burst of comparative happiness at the very end. The least unhappy point in the day for these folks? Quitting time.
By contrast, the engaged people are as happy when they walk in the door in the morning as unengaged people were at the end of the day–and the engaged people keep getting happier from there. The most tedious and unpleasant time in an engaged person’s average day as happy as the most thrilling time in an unengaged person’s day! Weirdly, people who are trying to entertain and distract themselves at work by stretching coffee breaks out and reading e-mailed jokes are having much, much less fun than people who are getting excited about their work.
Admittedly, it’s not always easy to get excited about one’s work. It’s especially hard if you have a manager you don’t like, if you’re doing something you don’t believe in, if you have serious concerns about how the organization operates, if you don’t like your coworkers, or if you don’t have what you need to do your job effectively. In these situations, it might make sense to look for a new job.
In other situations, it can be interesting to ask yourself “What could I do to feel more involved and interested in my work?” There are some suggestions in my article 6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like.
Photo by oso