Being Happy At Work

If the words “happy” and “work” are put together, they would most likely be perceived as an oxymoron to most people. Often, many of us would testify that our jobs are merely financial means to an end. Even more would lament about the drudgery of everyday work life – the “slow death” that saps our energy from day to day. If this is the case, it would be truly ironic that we actually spend the bulk of our time (approximately 5 work days a week) being unhappy. And if we were to extrapolate this across an entire career, a grim picture awaits all of us.

In 2011, a multinational survey of 14 countries ranked Singapore employees as the least happy. 42% of those who were surveyed indicated that they were dissatisfied or more than dissatisfied with their jobs. With rapidly changing marketplaces, job demands have been struggling to keep pace.

So can we be happy at work?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. But how you might wonder? Here are the steps:

1) Engage Your Work

For years, HR professionals have introduced various ways of increasing the engagement levels of their organisations’ employees, so as to improve their productivity in the face of global changes. But what exactly is employee engagement?

University of Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, who has studied the psychology of engaged workers at all levels, found that they create a hyperfocused state of mind. He calls it “flow.” People in flow are exhilarated and are remarkably unstressed even when doing challenging work. They lose themselves in a task they love and feel “out of time.” Their brains work efficiently and precisely. Interestingly, Csikzentmihalyi discovered that people are much more likely to be in flow while working than while involved in leisure activities.

One way that organisations can engage their employees better is to ensure that an employee’s key performance indicators are clearly defined, because flow occurs most often when tasks are tightly aligned with the person’s goals. This would allow the individual to be better engaged in his or her work. Also, a work station with the most minimal of distractions would encourage flow. From simple actions like switching phones to silent mode to temporarily removing any IM notifications, flow levels can be heightened. Sometimes, even pouring and losing oneself in a project, especially one that you are passionate about, can allow you to enjoy work more. Employees must be encouraged to practice such behaviours.

2) Reframe Your Perspectives

Is work good or bad?

Essentially, whether it is good or bad, this is ultimately a choice. Many of us choose to entrench our minds in a negative perspective of work simply because it is often easier to do so. Reframing is essentially a technique that allows us to adopt different ways or perspectives of looking at the same thing or situation. Often unwanted stress happens and worries creep in when we let ourselves be seduced by an easily-framed meaning of a situation when we should also be looking at the same situation with another frame as well.

If you have any trouble reframing the meaning of work, you may wish to apply a simple theory known as the Pain-Pleasure Principle. In everything we do in life, we would always attribute either a “pain” or “pleasure” meaning to an activity. There are always occasions where we are intrinsically motivated to perform a task or we could do it out of fear. If we use as work as an example, it would, most probably, be labeled as “pain”, where the motivation to complete it is generally extrinsic.

However, by doing so, an emotional snowball might erupt. Thoughts and feelings start to get negative and even if a pleasurable moment appeared in the day, it may still be labeled as negative. Thus, for example, you could view the dreaded situation of communicating with a difficult customer as an opportunity for professional growth rather than an undesired chore. So if you could identify the part or parts of your job that could be enjoyable, focus your attention on them and reframe the entire perspective, it may be your salvation for workplace happiness.

3) Exercise Your Body

It is a well-known fact that health and happiness are fundamentally linked. When you exercise, your brain releases “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins. These neurotransmitters combine to improve our moods and emotions. It is suggested that a 30-minute workout at the gym or brisk walking on a daily basis would suffice in stimulating these chemicals and thus promote happiness. Organisations are recommended to also contribute to the physical and psychological well-being of their employees. HP, for example, has over 30 fitness centers in 12 countries and regularly promotes healthy lifestyles to its employees.

Conversely, happiness can influence our health. Years ago, in a groundbreaking finding, Carnegie Mellon University Psychology Professor, Sheldon Cohen, discovered that people who are happy, lively, calm or exhibit other positive emotions are less likely to become ill when they are exposed to a cold virus than those who report few of these emotions. Hence, with this positive cycle of health and happiness, both organisations and employees benefit.

Happiness at work is not a myth. In order for this reality to be actualised, both organisations and the individual employee must understand the benefits that this notion brings and work towards it. If both parties can see each other as equal stakeholders for mutual gains, job dissatisfaction would be a thing of the past and productivity would increase. Then perhaps, happy work may no longer be a pipe dream after all.


Article by Andy Pan, the Director of Training at Right Impact Training

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