One happiness researcher believes we’re all capable of becoming happier in our jobs. It just takes a little bit of deliberate practice.
There might be many reasons why your job makes you miserable. Maybe your work is boring, your manager is terrible, or your company just has awful benefits or a crappy work culture. If you aren’t experiencing any workplace malaise, bravo! You’ve hit the jackpot.
But if you crave more satisfaction at work, you don’t necessarily need to find a new job or escape your boss. According to Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a happiness researcher at UC Berkeley, where she teaches a popular edX course called “The Science of Happiness” and serves as Director of the university’s Greater Good Science Center, we’re all capable of making ourselves happier at work–we just have to, well, work at it.
“Some people have a greater capacity for happiness than others do,” Simon-Thomas recently explained to me, mainly because of genetics or life experience. But she claims that “if you want to maximize your potential for happiness, there are things you’ve got to do.” Here are four habits everyone can practice in order to feel happier at work no matter what.
Related: The Surprising Scientific Link Between Happiness And Decision-Making
1. INTENTIONALLY SAVOR THE GOOD TIMES
Simon-Thomas poses the question: “How likely are you to say, ‘Yes,’ when asked, ‘Did you enjoy your day at work?’ Two individuals can face the same set of challenges, and one will leave the workplace invigorated, and the other anxious or depressed.”
“Our days at work, as in life, will rarely be uniformly pleasurable,” she continues. “Such times do exist. When you find them, appreciate and cherish those stretches.” It’s easier said than done, and Simon-Thomas recognizes that. “More often than not, workplaces are pressured and challenging,” she adds. But it’s “those who can laugh at their foibles, be mindful, advocate for their own ideas, and dwell on what has gone well [who] will thrive on those challenges,” she explains.
“They realize creative solutions to those setbacks” thanks to the positivity they’ve built up and taken time to appreciate when good things do happen.
2. FIND (OR CREATE) THE PURPOSE IN YOUR WORK
The people who are happiest in their jobs, says Simon-Thomas, are “driven by a higher purpose.”
There’s plenty of data to back this up, even outside Simon-Thomas’s field of happiness research; we know, for example, that a sense of purpose is fundamental to the psychology of motivation. “People whose daily activities are guided by or framed in accordance with their sense of purpose are happier in life,” Simon-Thomas points out, yet that sense of purpose is not something we define strictly by ourselves.
“It really matters to one’s happiness at work that [one’s] organization has a mission or overarching ethos about what they do and why it matters,” she explains. Managers need to help team members see “why their contributions matter and how their activities advance the goals of the department, the company, and the world at large,” says Simon-Thomas.
Obviously, that doesn’t always happen. So if you feel like a “cog in the wheel,” she suggests, take steps to “reframe your work.” You can also try talking it through with your boss: Ask your manager to help you connect the dots between what you do and what the company puts out into the world. Otherwise, consider becoming more intrapreneurial in your existing role. Create something new–a program, a service, an event, or a project that has an impact you can actually witness.
“Or if you can’t find a match between your values and your current position,” says Simon-Thomas, “seek it out in another role.”
3. IMPROVE YOUR RESILIENCE
The third attribute of happy employees, she continues, is resilience, “the ability to recover from adversity that might seem overwhelming [to others], and keep on going.”
Let’s say, despite your best efforts, you’ve flubbed an important project and your boss has made her displeasure known. You could lash out defensively, stifle your shame, retreat, and decide that in the future you’ll steer clear of major projects–and your boss. Or you could respond as Simon-Thomas would advise: “Take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that this episode is temporary, and reflect on the external circumstances that contributed to it.”
This simple mindfulness exercise can help you become more resilient in facing similar setbacks–which, after all, is inevitable. “With all that in mind,” says Simon-Thomas, “make it clear to yourself and to others that you’ll do better next time.” Carrying this positive outlook forward will help you avoid dwelling on past failures–and feel happier about opportunities to grow.
4. PRACTICE KINDNESS
The fourth habit to practice, says Simon-Thomas, “is social connectedness, the ability to build relationships with others.” Happy employees feel like they’re part of a team they trust and that supports them in return. How do you develop this sense of connectedness? According to Simon-Thomas, “it’s by tapping into our innate kindness, taking a genuine interest in others, and showing more empathy, compassion, generosity, and gratitude.”
“Kindness,” she notes, “also entails being willing to reconcile interpersonal conflict. Workplace apologies garner respect, and forgiving others relieves stress, strengthens closeness, and creates a sense of belonging.”
These are all basic interpersonal skills that we’re taught in kindergarten but don’t always keep working on as grown-ups–in part because our jobs don’t always encourage that. As Simon-Thomas argues, “in the workplace the culture of hierarchy and stoicism is incredibly ingrained. And all those things make it much more difficult for people to trust each other and treat each other in a respectful and supportive way.”
But, she believes, practicing kindness is one of the simplest and most effective ways to break down those norms–no matter how stiff or stale your work culture may be–and become happier in the process. Chances are your efforts will be contagious, making the people around you happier, too.