Well-Being//

If Finding Happiness at Work Feels Overwhelming, Here’s Where to Start

Snag happiness for good by changing your perspective on everything you’ve got on your to-do list.

Ahmet Misirligul/ Shutterstock
Ahmet Misirligul/ Shutterstock

We all want to be happy at work. Yet most of us never define what “happiness” actually means.

According to science, being happy falls into two categories: hedonism and eudaimonia. The former is fleeting, attached to momentary pleasure. The latter also produces powerful feelings of joy, but only because it is attached to purpose.

And purpose, or connectedness, seems to be what’s missing in so many job environments.

Finding eudaimonic happiness at work

Instead of struggling to achieve superficial snippets of instant gratification, what we need to do is find meaning in our roles. A sense of meaning gives us a reason to push on, despite setbacks, because we’re an integral pixel of a bigger picture.

Aside from helping us change our perspectives, working with purpose fosters much-needed engagement. Harvard University research found that although 71 percent of corporate leaders felt employee engagement was pivotal to their companies’ success, just under a quarter of workers reported being engaged.

It’s not that we don’t want engagement: We just have a tough time uncovering the roots of that engagement. Yet we have the power to make anything we do seem more purpose-filled. And that’s well worth doing, as team members who tackle their to-dos with an eye on the forest and not just the trees are more likely to feel energized than depleted.

Changing viewpoints to maximize happiness

If your engagement level is low, be assured that you can rev up your work’s purpose. Take a few key steps to reframe your brain toward a more eudaimonic mindset.

1. Seek out purpose in bite-sized chunks.

Many people think that having a purpose means changing the universe or leading groundbreaking disruption. It doesn’t. The simplest decisions and actions can contribute to the feeling that you are making a difference. When you take the time to listen to a stressed-out co-worker, it can change the way that person feels for the rest of the day — and make you happier, too.

Aaron Hurst, author of “The Purpose Economy,” believes a sense of purpose is the reason companies such as Whole Foods are winning consumers. He urges people to add an emotional component to each task they do as a path to heightening engagement. “If relationships and conversation are really important to you, you might modify your job a little, and rather than always emailing people, you pick up the phone and try to talk to them,” Hurst suggests. “The most important thing to do is to be present, awake, and grateful.”

2. Track your social impact like it’s a budget.

Measuring social impact is not an exact science, but it’s becoming increasingly important. In fact, Emily Lohse-Busch, executive director at Arch Grants in St. Louis, sees social impact measurement as an inevitability in the corporate realm. “Looking forward, businesses should plan for, track, and measure social impact in the same way that they look at their business growth,” she says. Demonstrating social impact can help foster a greater sense of purpose among employees and employers, and as we’ve seen, that’s the key to eudaimonic happiness at work.

Not convinced you’re making a difference? Start charting your social impact on an individual level. Consider how your actions have trickle-down effects days, months, or years down the road. For instance, your decision to order Monday’s teamwide lunch from a local farm-to-fork upstart could have wide-ranging results. Another team member might hire the caterer for a private event after loving the concept, causing a snowball of lead generation that keeps the business afloat for years. For a more concrete metric, add up the money or volunteer hours you’ve contributed to a cause, and create a comprehensive list of all the ways you’re making an effort to improve the world around you.

3. Turn back to your ‘Why?’ when you lose your way.

Some days, a sense of purpose will come easily. Others, it will be hard to elicit. When you feel burned out by the routine of your responsibilities, take a mental break. Look at the next item on your to-do list and try to see it as part of a greater whole. Getting this month’s numbers to add up may seem like so much soul-crushing drudgery — until you realize that maintaining the financial health of your company is what allows you and your co-workers to put food on your families’ tables and new school supplies in your kids’ backpacks. By giving the task a higher purpose, you can find the joy in completing it.

This kind of refocusing can be tough, but it works with a little trial and error. Another trick for getting back on a purpose-driven track is to make sure your next move is altruistic and deliberate, even if it isn’t on your calendar or list of responsibilities. Instead of aimlessly surfing your phone over your lunch break, for example, take some gently used sweaters to a local shelter. Make it your mission to keep the momentum going, and you will find more ways to right your purpose ship when it drifts.

Happiness isn’t out of your grasp, not by a long shot. It’s in the next thing you do, and the thing after that. Embrace the power of purpose and give new energy, meaning, and commitment to your life at work.

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