A Janitor’s Secret to Happiness

A work environment we look forward to going back to with excitement instead of dread is the holy grail of modern life

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Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d discover the secret to happiness in a nondescript and unassuming place: a nursing home.

My story begins with a man named Jason, a worker at one of the skilled nursing facilities I was researching in the small, faraway town of Blanding, Utah.

As I arrived at the facility and headed down the institutional hallway, I saw a worker using a large floor-polishing machine to remove tape residue from the floor. No one else was around, so I paused and began to ask him questions over the roar of the machine. After a few minutes, he turned it off and leaned against the wall to talk. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your work,” I apologized. But he wanted to talk, not with the air of getting out of work, but like nothing else he could be doing was more important than helping me.

His name was Jason. His clothes were dark and clean, his manner diffident but friendly. His primary job was running the floor machine. It was run every day in all the hallways and large rooms, and that’s what he was paid for; that was his entire shift, all day, every day.

But here’s what I learned about Jason from talking to others who work with him: He does more than he’s strictly paid for. He knows every single last resident of the facility. Every day Jason can be seen pushing wheelchairs to and from dining and activities or carrying blankets to an old lady who caught a chill or filling a water jug for an old man who can’t fill it himself.

None of these tasks are technically his job, but they are part of the job to him.

Jason told me that his friends, who all had similarly low-skilled jobs, lived their lives for the weekend. But for him it was the opposite: the weekend was the space he had to fill before he could get back to work. He looked forward to Mondays the way other people look forward to Friday night, with excitement and anticipation and impatience. This job was his lifeline, his center, how he filled the empty yearning places of his heart.

This is an experience we all long for, isn’t it? A work environment we look forward to going back to with excitement instead of dread is the holy grail of modern life. When we’re dissatisfied with work, all the books and bloggers urge us to find another job or devote our time to other tasks, on the assumption that some particular as-yet-unknown activity will enliven us and we just have to find it. But this man doesn’t have a better set of tasks than his friends; he’s not getting fame or riches or even necessarily upward career mobility. He cleans the floors. Specifically, he cleans the floors in a nursing home.

Yet he’s happier and more fulfilled than so many of us. So what gives?

Jason personifies what I call “the shift”: what happens when you start seeing people as people. With the shift, work isn’t dull and tedious: it’s an opportunity to enrich people’s lives. Those conflicts at home? They change, too, because you’re able to shift your perspective and see what’s driving the behavior of your spouse, partner or child.

The shift is rooted in the philosophies of the Arbinger Institute, a global organization that helps individuals, teams and companies move from an inward to outward mindset. Shifting in this way changes everything for the better: between coworkers, colleagues, relatives and neighbors.

So, how can you start?

.1. Ask: “What do you need?”

When we meet someone, one of our first thoughts is “What do I say?” But when we do this, we’re thinking about ourselves—we’re focusing on what’s comfortable or not embarrassing for us. The staff members I met in the nursing facilities weren’t thinking, “What do I say?” they were thinking, “What do you need?” They were focused on how they could help.

Imagine if coworkers, friends and family focused on what you needed. You’d undoubtedly feel appreciated, understood and valued.

2. Pay attention.

Sometimes the shift can happen just by being around people and paying attention. What causes us to be blind to people, what causes us to see them as objects, is an absorption in ourselves and our own concerns. So, instead of burying yourself in your smartphone or putting on headphones, be present. Interact with people. You’ll have the opportunity to see things in a new and different light.

If you manage or lead people, immersing yourself among your people is especially important. A leader who’s leading people must know them—their strengths, weaknesses and preferences—to be able to make the right decisions for them as workers. The best leadership isn’t from on high; it is alongside.

3. Look through their eyes.

Sometimes being around people isn’t enough, especially when our own problems are overwhelming. When proximity doesn’t work, spend a few minutes thinking about the inner lives and motivations of the people around you. Imagine seeing the world through their eyes.

In dozens of studies, taking the perspective of another person has been shown to reduce hostility and prejudice, improve moral thinking and negotiation outcomes, and increase empathy and cooperation.

In a work scenario, you might ask yourself: What do you know about your coworkers’ lives? Have you ever asked, “What makes your job hard for you?” This question serves as a way to unearth and identify the issues that create frustration. It also opens up a discussion to solve these issues, which benefits everyone.

You can ask versions of this question in your personal life as well: “What makes it hard to get the laundry folded?” or “What makes it hard to remember the milk?” The answers to these questions begin to reveal the inner life of the person you are talking to—what he or she cares about, feels stymied by, or where there’s a struggle. Can you see how this might change how you view a situation? Or how it might alter how you view your spouse? The shift is a powerful tool.

Kimberly White is a freelance writer, certified Arbinger Institute presenter, and former research assistant to its founder, Terry Warner. Her new book, The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 2018), is the result of nine months of research that included dozens of hours working alongside nursing home employees in offices, vans, patient rooms, and kitchens. She recently relocated from Harlem to a small farm town in Pawnee, Illinois to focus on writing. To learn more, visit

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