How to Be Happier at Work Without Changing Your Job
How did you end up here — feeling miserable, bored, or simply lukewarm about your work?
A few years ago, having the job you have right now was the dream. But these days, when the alarm goes off and you need to get out of bed, the prospect of going to work feels… not too bad, at best.
Your job felt way more exciting when you were just starting. Everything seemed like a fun challenge and you were proud of yourself. But those days are long gone, and you’re left wondering:
How to reignite that sense of happiness you used to feel at work?
“Happiness at work comes from the inside out. It’s something we create for ourselves. A lot of people will lose or leave a job and go somewhere else and find that they’re just as unhappy.”
In this article, I won’t tell you to find a new job or negotiate a raise. These are often just band-aids.
Instead, I’ll share my experience, as well as expert insights on how to revive work satisfaction within the job you currently have. As a bonus, you may discover your productivity also improves.
The Hidden Reason You’re Not Enjoying Your Work
Some people genuinely are in the wrong jobs.
They don’t enjoy what they do and they’re not very good at it. They treat work as a necessary evil. For these folks, trying a different career might indeed be the way to go.
But we all know someone who picked their dream job complain about work nevertheless. Admittedly, I’m sometimes one of those people. Even though I always wanted to be a freelance writer, I sometimes enter phases when all I can focus on is the downsides of this profession.
Endless hours in front of the screen. Isolation. Constant uncertainty about finding the next gig. The ongoing conflict between working on my passion projects and working for money.
The list seems never-ending.
When I’m in a “complaint loop” like that, I wonder: Where did the sense of purpose go which I once felt to be so intrinsic to my writing?
I’m guessing you also have a litany of complaints when it comes to your job. Once you start focusing on them, it becomes harder and harder to get out of that negative loop and see the joys of your work. As Peter Bregman explains in Harvard Business Review:
“Complaining changes the balance of negative/positive energy and, for a brief moment at least, we feel better. It’s actually a pretty reliable process. Addictive even.
(…) Like just about all addictions, we’re feeding the spin of a destructive, never-ending cycle. The release of pressure — the good feeling — is ephemeral. In fact, the more we complain, the more likely the frustration, over time, will increase.”
The more you complain about work — either to others or quietly in your mind — the more dissatisfied you’ll feel. Complaining means constantly expressing the conviction that things should be different than they are. When you repeat it over and over, you sabotage yourself. How can complaining possibly make you happier at work?
Most people assume that work satisfaction is primarily about what we do. But more often than not, it’s also related to how we do it. If you approach work with a presumption that things should be different than they already are, you’re arguing with reality.
That’s a quick recipe for unhappiness — at work, but also in other areas of life.
When I enter that loop of complaints, I typically start debating the tasks I’m focusing on. When I do creative writing, I feel a sense of guilt that I still haven’t dealt with this week’s admin. When I do the admin, I think of all the unanswered emails — maybe I should be replying to them instead? This way, I create a vicious cycle of thinking that there’s always something more important I should be working on.
As a result, my work happiness dips — and so does my productivity. So, what’s the solution?
Work Satisfaction and Productivity Are Closely Related
Research shows there’s a strong connection between job satisfaction and productivity. This may sound obvious — but have you ever wondered why this is so?
In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor “reveals how happiness actually fuels success and performance, not the other way around. (…) [W]hen we are happier and more positive we are more engaged, creative, resilient to stress, and productive.”
Happiness supports your cognitive abilities. When you feel happy at work, you enter a positive feedback loop — the better your performance, the better you feel, and this in turn makes you even more productive. This sounds great in theory. But how can you transition to that positive feedback loop when you’re stuck in the rut of complaints?
One simple way to do it is available to us all the time: Focus on the present moment.
Both happiness and productivity stem from the same root — being mindfully engaged in the task at hand. Yes, mindfulness at work isn’t a fad. Apart from being a sexy theme for corporate trainings, it’s also a very practical meta-skill. It allows you to focus on what’s right in front of you without arguing with reality.
To me, this becomes apparent whenever I enter that “complaint loop” during my workday. A part of me would like to always do things perfectly, in an “optimal” order, dedicating exactly the right amount of time and energy to each task. That’s understandable — but this strive for perfection is usually detrimental.
If I’m already in the middle of writing an article, what good can it do if I question the validity of this task? How does simultaneously thinking about taxes is supposed to help me create my best work?
In any job, various tasks compete for your attention. It’s tempting to endlessly try to optimize them so that you can have a “perfect” workday. But often, a much more practical approach is to learn how to be present and engaged with what you’re already doing.
This way, you give yourself fully to your work. That’s how you enter a state of flow. This can maximize your work happiness and productivity at the same time — without having to switch companies or complaining to your co-workers.
How To Be Happier and More Productive at Work
Here’s the question that we’re really trying to answer:
What’s the best way to stay present and engaged with what you’re doing, without feeling like work should be different than it already is?
The answer is simple: Learn to see value and meaning in all parts of your work.
Whatever you’re doing at the moment, don’t escape it. Everything you do at work has the potential to contribute to your overall satisfaction. After all, you already experienced the feeling of being happy at work in the past. Now it’s just a matter of reviving it.
In most jobs, there are three main types of tasks one needs to perform:
- the boring tasks,
- the exciting tasks,
- the draining tasks.
On top of that, there are distractions — things we focus on when we’re not engaged in any of the above. Even though distractions aren’t directly related to work, for most people, they’re an inseparable part of the workflow.
It’s easy to see how you can get immersed in and enjoy the exciting tasks. These are the ones that naturally spark satisfaction and fulfillment. However, they can also produce the most resistance, since they’re typically the parts of your work you most care about. This means you may be anxious about messing them up — hence, you procrastinate on them.
You also need to see the boring and draining tasks, as well as distractions, as equally valuable parts of your work. If you learn to appreciate them, you may find that you organically start spending the right amount of time on each. Through that, your work happiness and productivity rise effortlessly.
So how exactly can you find value and meaning in all aspects of work?
Appreciate the value of boring tasks
Boring tasks typically demand low-intensity energy and spark little interest. These may include attending boring meetings, replying to emails, and other automatic tasks which, however purposeless they may seem, need to be completed.
The main challenge in appreciating their value is that we often see them as a “waste of time.” The good news is, you can still find meaning in those boring tasks.
To me, they’re a chance to rest my mind while still being somewhat productive. I may look up cover images on Unsplash or re-post content on social media. Meanwhile, I get to have some downtime.
When you’re bored, your mind enters an idle state when it’s “free to roam.” Especially if your job is heavy on problem-solving and other “thinking” tasks, those moments of idleness can be priceless.
“Mental idle time, meanwhile, seems to facilitate creativity and problem-solving. “Our research has found that mind-wandering may foster a particular kind of productivity,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has studied mind-wandering extensively. He says overcoming impasses — including what he calls “a-ha!” moments — often happen when people’s minds are free to roam.”
See your boring tasks as opportunities for your mind to stroll. You may find that you don’t just enjoy them more, but also, that they help you be more creative.
Experience flow during exciting tasks
The exciting tasks are the high-intensity and high-interest ones. When completed, they create a sense of competence and fulfillment. They demand you to use your skills to the fullest — and that happens when you immerse yourself in them.
To stay present and engaged in an exciting task is what the famous flow state is all about. That’s when you can forget yourself and experience pure joy. However, there’s usually one obstacle you need to overcome before you can enter flow.
Resistance is most prevalent when we try to engage in our most exciting and important tasks. As Steven Pressfield noticed in his iconic The War of Art:
“The more important a call or action to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”
Moving past resistance is the prerequisite to immersing yourself in the exciting task. I found that the best way is to not fight resistance — but rather, recognize it as a real but temporary state of mind.
If I open a blank document and stare at it for long enough, the wall of Resistance will eventually start crumbling. I’ll begin by typing just a few words. Then, they seamlessly turn into a paragraph. Before I know it, I’m halfway done with a new blog post.
Resistance is best battled with tiny steps that feel easy enough to make — but, you need to make them.
Once you enter your flow, do your best to stay in it for as long as you can to produce the best results. Hold on to your focus. As Terrie Schweitzer put it, “It’s easier to keep momentum than produce it.”
Use draining tasks to build resilience
Draining tasks may be the ones we dread the most. They’re typically high-intensity and low-interest ones. You know you’ll need to do them eventually — but you’re prone to avoiding them since you know just how much energy they cost you.
A good example of a draining task is trying to figure out the technology you need to do your work. Recently, people around the world experienced this challenge as the Covid pandemic hit. We were forced to move much of our work online, which meant we needed to learn new communication and collaboration tools.
It’s easy to dismiss a draining task like that as a necessary evil and try to “get through it” as fast as possible, so you can do your “actual” work. But what if you could see this as a resilience-building activity? When you successfully deal with something hard and unpleasant, you get a chance to update your identity.
Moreover, you can be more present with the draining task by treating it as play. We tend to think of work and play as opposites, but actually, they’re not that far from one another. Both require your mind to bend and find new ways of looking at things.
Ian Bogost, who’s a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, put it this way:
“Fun is the aftermath of deliberately manipulating a familiar situation in a new way.”
You can do the same when working on a draining task, like writing a complicated report, re-doing your website, or dealing with technology. What’s the angle you can take that would allow you to see this task as both fun and valuable? How can you approach it so your mind is entertained, rather than drained by it?
Finally, there’s the most stigmatized part of our workdays — distractions. They’re usually characterized by low intensity and our unhealthily high interest in them (think of obsessively checking your Instagram just after you posted a particularly cool picture!).
We came to see distractions as the biggest enemy of productivity and something to be avoided at all costs. At the same time, we can’t help but indulge in them once in a while. And, it seems that we get distracted more than we realize — even as often as every 40 seconds for those who work in front of the screen!
However, not all distractions are created equal. Sometimes, they simply indicate that you need a break or a change in perspective. Especially if you’ve been working on a low-interest (boring or draining) task, the right dose of distraction can recharge your engagement and help you keep going.
“Distractions can help us cope with the pains of everyday life. Research on how distractions can be used to control our urges and impulses show that certain games, like Tetris, can help reduce cravings for fatty foods and even addictive drugs. Researchers suspect the cognitive demands of these games redirect our attention away from craving triggers, reducing the painful urge to indulge.”
You can leverage distractions by seeing them as a temporary relief from the strain work puts on you.
For example, I like to use deliberate “micro distractions” to give myself a break from a demanding writing session. These are short pauses when I get up to stretch, look outside the window, or make myself a coffee. Such activities are short enough not to take my attention away from writing completely — but long enough to give my mind a break and some gratification.
If you use micro distractions in this way, you’ll be less likely to get lost in an hour-long social media binge. You’ll relieve some tension without taking your mind too far away from what you’re trying to accomplish.
The takeaway here is: Validate your distractions and use them to your advantage, rather than dread or get lost in them.
Put Your Happiness First and Success Will Follow
The common advice goes, “If you don’t like it, change it.” But when it comes to work satisfaction, a better approach may be: “If you don't like it, change your approach to it.”
Switching jobs or negotiating better terms might be necessary for some — but that doesn’t mean you need to do it. Often, it’s worth pursuing happiness “from the inside out.” Most people who mastered their professional and personal journeys agree: happiness is an inside job that precedes outer success.
Annie McKee says:
“Happiness comes before success, not the other way around. So when we’re happier, we’re more successful in life, and not the other way around. If we’re optimistic and excited, our brains work better and we’re probably going to have better relationships too because we’re fun to be around. If we’re negative and cynical, no one wants to be around that.”
When it comes to work, the way to find fulfillment may be to change how you work, not what you do.
Learn to be present and engaged with each task. See the value in all of them. Don’t try to escape what you’re doing by insisting things should be different. Keep putting one foot in front of the other at a pace that feels good to you.
You may discover that your job is already meaningful enough — especially when you decide to see it that way.