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Psychology At Work

Psychology at Work

Tips For Workplace Happiness

September 21, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

In last week's entry I was critical of the New York Times article “Happy People Work Harder.” I said its suggestions for the ways leaders can create happy workers - “make projects go more smoothly” - were tepid and unimaginative. OK, some of you wrote, what are your bright ideas? And by the way, what makes you qualified? I don’t know if anyone short of Aristotle (or Tony Robbins) is truly qualified to opine on what makes humans happy, but I have spent 30 years observing human behavior in a variety of work environments, and the last four at the University of Pennsylvania working alongside the so-called “Father of Positive Psychology,” Dr. Martin Seligman, and his colleagues, researching and studying human happiness. Somewhere along the way something had to rub off.

A couple of caveats: First, I developed a list similar to this one for lawyers last year, a group in need of a hug if ever one existed, and some of these tips have been reworked and republished in legal publications. If some of it sounds familiar, you are probably a lawyer or law student, but you will find some new and evolved ideas here. Second, some of you might think that worrying how to increase your happiness in your job is distasteful and inappropriate, given the fact millions of our friends and neighbors are jobless in this horrible economy. “Hey, I am working, I should be happy for that, right?” Laudable sentiments, but we aren’t wired that way. Well-being is subjective to the individual, and while comparison to the situation of others, good or bad, has some effect on our happiness, the effect is is small.

So, at the risk of sounding trite while compressing the work of legendary philosophers and scientists into a top 10 list, here we go.

1. Use your strengths: The research is overwhelming that you are happiest when  you use your strengths and personality in your work. Although it is tough to be choosy in this job market, if you are a happy go-lucky extrovert, try to avoid jobs where you spend the day locked in a basement in front of a computer screen. If you hate sales, turn down that “developmental opportunity” in trade marketing. If the only numbers you like to crunch are betting lines on NFL games, don’t go into accounting. Know thyself, and find work that is a fit.

2. Choose optimism: The good news is optimism - a key component of happiness -  is a skill that can be developed. Although happiness is partly genetic, it is partly of our own choosing. Start by challenging your thoughts (see No. 5 below). Pessimists develop negative thinking patterns - a bad outcome is the end of a career, a layoff means you’ll never get another job. Optimists do the opposite; they perceive every setback as temporary, and think bad news eventually will turn to good. And given life’s inevitable ebbs and flows, it usually does.

3. Get out of the office: Stand up and move around. Don’t fight evolution. Your DNA comes from those early humans who could outrun prehistoric predators. The sit-around types became dinner and didn’t pass on their genes. We are wired for action and play. Take frequent breaks and walk around. Get some air and sunlight. If need be, tell the boss you are checking out “the market,” or doing a little consumer research, but move around.

4. Make friends at work: The famed positive psychologist Chris Peterson, teacher of the year at the University of Michigan, defines happiness as follows: “other people matter.” Be nice to the people in your office - all of them, not just the ones who might advance your career. Make friends by being yourself.  Ignore those who say to keep your work and personal life separate; don’t hide your personality at work. Go to every employee outing you can, or at least happy hour every now and then.

5. Put it all in perspective: The universe doesn’t revolve around you and your worries. A screw-up isn’t the end of the world or your career. Life moves on, and things tend to work out in the long run. By the way, every whispered office conversation isn’t about you. If your boss seems distracted, it doesn’t mean she suddenly hates you. She’s probably just busy.

That is all I have space for this week. I will round out the top 10 in my next post, so stay tuned. In the meantime, try one or two of these tips at work today and post a comment on what happened. We want to hear from you.

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