Many people put up with feeling unhappy at work because they assume that it would take a dramatic upheaval, like leaving their job, for things to get better.
Of course, it might be that you do eventually need to make bigger changes, but there are plenty of small shifts you can make to help you feel happier in the meantime.
Work cannot make you happy
First, let’s get the basics clear. There is a distinction between wanting to be happier at work and looking to work to make you happy. The former is possible, the latter is not.
Ask yourself honestly whether you expect your career to be the source of your happiness or to validate you in some way. If so, consider whether that is realistic (or even a good idea). As William Arthur Ward said, ‘happiness is an inside job’ – it comes from within, and because you choose it.
Realising that work can be a wonderful expression of who you are and can enrich your life in countless ways, whilst not being the basis for your happiness, immediately puts you in a stronger position because it takes the pressure off. Now you are simply exploring ways to have a more positive experience through your work, and that is realistic and manageable.
Environment and purpose
We are usually dissatisfied at work either because we do not like the environment we work in, or because we have lost sight of the purpose of our work (or both). To increase your overall happiness at work, try to therefore address each of these two elements.
Below are some examples to get you started.
1. The physical environment
If the physical environment at work does not suit you, do what you can to change it. You spend too much time there for it not to affect you.
If you do not like your office space, move desks to sit nearer nicer colleagues or make a request to work from home more. If it feels gloomy, personalise your work area by displaying photos or getting a plant.
Do not underestimate the big difference even the smallest of changes can make on a sub-conscious level.
2. The social environment
The social environment of a workplace is an exceptionally common source of stress. Not getting on with colleagues or working in a toxic organisational culture can quickly erode wellbeing.
Think carefully about what bothers you and what is within your control to change here, and then take conscious actions. One effective way to do this is to be the instigator of the changes you want to see. If you want a friendly environment, start more social conversations with those around you. If you want a positive team dynamic, tell teammates what you appreciate about them more often (‘Thank you, I like the way you…’).
You may not see immediate results but be thick-skinned and persevere. You should start to feel better simply by doing something proactive and, with time, should start noticing changes around you.
3. Your work purpose
Being clear on the purpose of your work is key to feeling motivated. If you have lost touch with the bigger picture of why you do what you do, spend some quiet time alone and try digging deeper than you are at the moment.
For example, you might think the reason you are in your role is to gain experience for a future promotion. Great, now dig deeper. What is really important about that to you? On reflection, perhaps you believe your organisation’s services improve lives in some way and you want to excel in your contribution to that. Maybe, at a core level, your work promotes a value that matters deeply to you such as health, equality or communication.
Keep digging until the answer/s feel authentic to you and remind yourself of this purpose on a regular basis.
4. Money is a red herring
Avoid falling into the trap of thinking you are only working for money. If money feels like the only purpose, think carefully about what your income is really providing and hold that as your purpose instead.
Most commonly, money really means freedom – freedom to enjoy certain life experiences, freedom to help others, and so on.
5. Work is a privilege
Part of clarifying your work’s purpose involves putting it into perspective and this is most easily done through gratitude. Make a list of reasons to be grateful if it helps (you can develop skills, earn a living, meet new people, be independent...).
There are plenty of people who would love to work but cannot, due to reasons beyond their control. Work is our contribution that we get to make and focussing on this is often the game changer when exploring feeling happier at work.
Nazish Bhaiwala, Founder and Career Coach at Red Arbre, is a former employment lawyer who coaches lawyers and other professionals on being happier at work.