Dear TED: “How can I be happier at work?”

Feb 6, 2018

Smart advice from TED speakers to help you rediscover your joy on the job

Dear TED,

I’ve been at my job for a few years and it’s … fine? Actually, not so fine. What was once interesting has become a slog, and my boss seems checked out. While I’m glad to be employed, I occasionally fantasize about quitting, moving to Maine, and doing something completely different, like raising alpacas. Everyone else I know is moving up, but I’m not going anywhere. However, I do remember liking my job in the beginning. How can I be happier at work? 


Bored Office Drone

Dear Office Drone,

No wonder you’re bored. You’re a drone! You shouldn’t be stuck at a desk — you should be out flying in the sky, delivering packages for Amazon!

All kidding aside, Drone, I’m sensing you are in the right place. You say you used to enjoy your work, and that’s a big deal. Here are seven strategies to help you rediscover your job on the job.

1. Define success on your own terms.

Could your discontent come from the nagging feeling that you’re not as successful as you’d like to be?

First, take comfort that you’re not alone. “It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living,” says philosopher Alain de Botton in his TED Talk. “But it’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.”

Then, ask yourself: How do I define success? And is this definition really mine? “A lot of the time, our ideas of what it means to live successfully are not our own,” says de Botton — we’ve picked them up from family members, peers or the culture.

Finally, consider what truly matters to you in terms of a job well done — and you may find you’ve already succeeded.

2. Customize your job into one that works for you.

The late Gallup scientist Shane Lopez was fascinated by people who loved their jobs, and studied thousands to identify what they had in common. One important finding: None of them lucked into the perfect job; instead, they created them. “By editing and nudging, they turned reasonably good jobs into ones they could love,” Lopez said.

This process does take some time and effort. But the eventual payoff will be a job that fits you, your strengths and your preferences as well as your favorite pair of jeans do.

3. Thank one of your co-workers every day.

Feeling sunnier at work is not just about asking big questions or making sweeping changes — there are many little activities you can do.

One easy exercise: every day, write down three new things you’re grateful for. Do this for 21 days. Happiness consultant and researcher Shawn Achor has found it appears to incline people’s brains to scan the world for the positive — think of it as happiness training for the brain.

Another mood-boosting activity: send one positive email a day praising or thanking someone. The act of thinking about a person’s good traits or deeds can help you relive them, and you’ll also get a glow from knowing that they’ll feel happy to be recognized.

4. Connect to your own meaning.

You say your boss is checked out — my condolences. Does your boss ever give you any feedback? Ignoring a person’s performance is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes, according to behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

To counter this negativity, try to take some time — every week or every month — to connect back to the essential reasons that you do your job. Why did you take it? Who are you helping, and how does that make you feel? Finding that meaning can change your outlook. Suddenly, your routines aren’t boring — they’re significant.

5. Try to keep your mind from wandering.

Psychology researcher Matt Killingsworth created the iPhone app Track Your Happiness. It pings users at random times in their days and asks them to rate how they were feeling and to say what they were doing. For a study, he collected more than 650,000 moments from over 15,000 people used it.

Killingsworth’s major takeaway from their data? “People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, no matter what they’re doing.”

Since we spend an average of 47 percent of our waking time in a scattered state, this could be fuelling your dissatisfaction. The simple solution: Keep your focus on the task you’re doing at work, and avoid getting sucked into random distractions, like the 30-second peek at Twitter that stretches into 10 minutes. Instead, schedule periodic short breaks for yourself when you can click and browse to your heart’s content.

6. Expand your circle.

Another way to be happier at work is by getting out of your comfort zone. Be an opportunity maker, in the words of business writer Kare Anderson: a person who seeks out and builds relationships with people unlike them. “Because they do that,” she says, “they have trusted relationships where they can bring the right team in and recruit them to solve a problem better and faster and seize more opportunities.”

Maybe you’ve been standing still at work, staring at the same folks. Are there other people inside your company you can befriend? Can you reach out to people in your industry? Making new connections can lead to serendipitous moments, says Anderson, which might give you the novelty you crave.

7. Remember, your job isn’t everything.

Finally, what you may need is an adjustment to your work-life balance. As author and marketer Nigel Marsh says, “If you don’t design your life, someone else will design it for you, and you may just not like their idea of balance.”

Do you leave the office on time? When did you last take a vacation? Or even a walk during lunch? Sometimes you need to pause before you can jump back into your job — it’s your deep breath before the high dive.

Maine — and the alpacas — will always be there for you in the future, but you can be happier at work today.

Good luck,