How to Be Happy at Work

By Heather O’Keefe, CPHR

How to Be Happy at Work by author Annie McKee serves up great ‘how-to’ recipe for anyone determined to spend the majority of their working hours without being consumed by stress, drudgery, frustration or by working in a no-end job. In fact, McKee feels that one can be happy at work despite experiencing some of those feelings at times. That is because, she states, happiness is a choice. Therefore, if you are looking wants to be happier at work, then this book can offer some valuable insights to achieving that goal.

In Pursuit of Happiness
At the end of each chapter are purposeful reflections to help analyze your own ability in the area being discussed. It also provides mindful practices that you can implement into your daily routine to best achieve the results desired.

Of key importance are the questions that need to be asked and answered:

  1. Why should one expect to be happy at work?
  2. Why does one need to be happy at work?
  3. How does one develop the persona of being happy at work?

Question 1: Why should one expect to be happy at work?
This is primarily because most of your energy, focus, and resources are spent at a job for eight or more hours a day. If you are not happy during all that time it is quite possible that the rest of your life will be impacted. What will you have left to give to yourself or your family if you are not happy for most of your waking and productive hours? If you can’t be happy most of the time then you may find your life becoming meaningless. According to McKee, “Happiness is a human right.”

Question 2: Why does one need to be happy at work?
The answer to question one is part of the answer to question 2. However, in addition, McKee presents powerful reasons why we need to learn to develop this attitude in order to be productive, driven and inspiring as a team leader or player. We need to get the most out of our time at work for our own personal benefit and this will contribute to the success of the organization we work for in the bargain.

When we are happy with what we are doing, we are engaged. It changes the way we look at what we do and why we do it. We focus on accomplishing something that has purpose for us. Why do we do what we do? What value does it have to myself or others? If the job itself has meaning and purpose then accomplishing that purpose can add meaning to our life. This applies as much to the front line as to the CEO.

Question 3: How does one develop the persona of being happy at work?
The answer to this question encompasses the majority of McKee’s book. She begins with three basic ingredients for being happy at work, chiefly having:

  1. a sense of purpose;
  2. a vision and a hope; and
  3. positive relationships with others.

The Impact of Purpose
Having a sense of purpose does not mean that your purpose in life revolves solely around the organization for which you work. No. Your purpose and meaning in life is bigger than that. However, when you identify with your purpose and you bring that to the workplace, your role at work becomes more fulfilling. You find meaning in everything you do because it contributes to the well-being of yourself, and for others also.

To identify your purpose you need to know what you value in life. How do your values align with you organization’s values and mission? Bring those values to the work place so that your work has greater meaning; this also allows you to live and act according to your values.

Similarly, the company mission should inspire workers to live up to their values in life. Workers want to contribute to a common goal, a goal that provides meaning and purpose. Profit for the company is not a motivator unless you have a seat on the board.

To find purpose and value in our jobs we need to be creative and innovative to find new ways of doing things better and contributing to the greater good. In pursuit of this, be a person who looks for ways to improve things—as opposed to blaming others for inefficiencies or being resigned to doing things the same old way.

McKee shares her experience with two individuals, both in high-pressure, challenging and often daunting jobs. The first individual had felt a sense of burn out, lacking the motivation to continue while trying to meet deadlines and dodging the proverbial bullet. The second individual focused on the purpose and vision to be realized. She understood the value of building strong relationships with the individuals on her team; McKee attributes to her success to her attitude.

Of Vision, Hope and The Importance of Others
Having a vision and a hope are also key ingredients in McKee’s recipe for happiness at work. This requires we focus on how we can improve, be it through learning opportunities or advancement possibilities. Hope also allows us to weather strong set backs and trials in life. That said, in order for hope to thrive we need to banish pessimism and allow ourselves to look at the positive things going on around us instead of the negative.

This of course may be a hurdle with the negativity and pessimism that abounds today, but having a personal hope that transcends that reality is what we are trying to achieve in life.

Unsurprisingly, McKee also sites interaction with others as a key ingredient to happiness in the workplace, and undeniably, our relationships with others plays a major role in our being happy or otherwise. We are social creatures by nature and we have an effect on others either for good or bad.

In order for happiness to be a fundamental attitude we need to address all the negative emotions that can work to counter our goal of being happy. McKee shows that having a strong sense of emotional intelligence is the key to understanding and controlling our negative emotions so that they have less impact on our overall well-being.

While this is embraced at an individual level, organizations are often less prepared to accept the fact that negative and positive emotions affect our thoughts and behaviours, which in turn impacts our success or failure at work—and the broader organization as a result. For example, if you work for an organization where you are constantly stressed, afraid of your manager or constantly upset with your colleagues, what usually happens is that you shut down or fight back. Either way, you become less effective, less happy. This is not to say that these situations wouldn’t bother most of us, but it is how we react that can make the difference.

Using the negative emotions we feel in positive ways such as confronting issues effectively and respectfully or analyzing how others may have felt before we react can play the biggest part in maintaining positive relationships with other which contributes to our happiness.

Common Caveats: Five Happiness Traps
As McKee brings home in her book, if we work simply because we need to make a living, then we lose sight of our own values. Overwork is not sustainable and therefore is not good for us. As for the hurdles and obstacles that keep us from happiness, McKee outlines five common of which to be aware:

  1. The Overwork trap;
  2. The Money trap;
  3. The Ambition trap;
  4. The ‘Should’ trap; and
  5. The Helpless trap.

McKee then uses the emotional intelligence model as the antidote to break free from such happiness traps. She shows us how to listen to our emotional wake-up calls. When we are physically ill we experience symptoms that we seldom ignore entirely. Similarly, we need to check our pulse when it comes to emotional upsets because they effect our life just as much.

EQ Wake-up Calls
Emotional wake-up calls can be:

  • Seeing the glass as half-empty when normally you see it as half-full;
  • Seeing even small problems as insurmountable obstacles;
  • Feeling sad more often than normal;
  • Having difficulty snapping out of a bad mood;
  • Feeling unappreciated and taken for granted;
  • Feeling exhausted at the idea of doing something new and different;
  • Believing that no matter what you do, it won’t be enough;
  • Dreading your work; and/or
  • Getting frustrated easily or having a short fuse.

Our relationships will also suffer if we ignore other wake-up calls such as:

  • Your conversations or emails are short, terse, and task oriented: “You pick up the kids and I’ll get the groceries”; or “I need the report by Friday.”;
  • People say things like: “Are you OK?”; “Are you mad at me?”;
  • Your not interested in getting to know your coworkers;
  • People in your life are distancing themselves from you;
  • People get quiet when you enter the room;
  • You find yourself disagreeing and fighting over minor things;
  • You are prone to blame or criticize others;
  • You overreact when people disappoint you; and/or
  • You can’t remember when you last had a good time with anyone.

Putting Happiness to Work
Overall I enjoyed McKee’s How to Be Happy at Work and felt it had great value, especially for individuals who are a position to make decisions for their team and are able to impact the culture within their realm of influence. Our overall purpose in life, our hope for the future and developing positive relationships at work truly are the keys to happiness in the work place.

Emotional intelligence has to be a major factor in successful leadership today and I highly recommend McKee’s book as part of a leadership program. These strategies will certainly help the individual who is already driven and committed to improving their lot in life—and the lives of those around them at work as well. I see how this book will greatly help them to achieve that purpose.

During her 20 years of experience with small to large organizations, Heather O’Keefe, CPHR has handled a widespread of HR issues from employee relations to developing and facilitating management training programs with a focus on leadership, customer and employee loyalty, and conflict resolution. She now works as an independent HR consultant offering HR strategies for small business owners who require practical advice on developing the skills that will engage their employees to be more productive and happy workers and to recognize and nurture their leadership potential. Follow her on Linkedin.

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