“You work to live, not live to work - so work on what makes you happy”. This popular quote seems to suggest that our work, and what makes us happy, are two entirely separate things.
This can very well be the case, and there’s no denying there’s more to life than work. But with 90,000 hours of our lives spent working, it would be nice if we could derive happiness from making a living too.
Even if the idea feels like mixing ice cream with ketchup, there are scientifically proven ways you can be happier at work. Some are as simple as sitting up straighter, and others can be likened to a soul-searching introspective journey. One thing is for sure: no matter what kind of work you do, at least one of them is bound to make an enormous difference in your professional life.
Ready to find out what that could be? Read on for a dozen ways to increase your happiness at work.
- What exactly is happiness at work?
- 12 science-backed ways to be happier at work
- 1. Start the day off on a good note
- 2. Connect with your colleagues
- 3. Acknowledge any progress you have made
- 4. Share something positive about your day with a positive person
- 5. Improve your work environment
- 6. Help a colleague
- 7. Set healthy boundaries
- 8. Seek validation from colleagues
- 9. Make your work goals your own
- 10. Keep good posture
- 11. End your workday with a moment of gratitude
- 12. Forget chasing happiness and focus on finding meaning in your work
- Wrapping up
What exactly is happiness at work?
Before we dive into how to be happier at work, it would help to define what exactly we’re striving for.
“Measuring happiness is about as easy as taking the temperature of the soul or determining the exact color of love.”
Clearly, it’s not possible to measure if you’ve become happier at work the same way you’d measure if you have enough water to cook soup.
So how can we tell if we’ve achieved this goal? And how can we determine what we’re aiming for at all?
Two researchers have made some particularly insightful observations that can help us.
The first is Dr. Christine Carter. She maintains that happiness is not a feeling that comes from getting or doing what we want. Instead, it comes from our ability to access and consciously implement an array of positive emotions:
In other words, being happy at work doesn’t mean never experiencing stress, but rather deciding to bounce back from it.
The science director of the Greater Good Science Center echoes this sentiment:
“We do not consider happiness to be a momentary emotional state like amusement or pleasure or heart-swelling pride, and we don’t think you can arrive at happiness by stringing together a stream of positive experiences. Rather, we define happiness as an overarching quality of life that is rich in a variety of emotions, even including episodes of anger, sadness, and stress. While it’s not ideal for these more challenging emotions to last too long or have too much influence on how we think, the situations in which they occur are often the ones that fuel our deeper sense of purpose, and draw us into meaningful contact with others.”
So as you read our tips below, keep in mind that the end goal is not to eliminate any negative feelings at work. You will inevitably feel some of them. But what’s important is that your ability to overcome them is stronger.
12 science-backed ways to be happier at work
Now let’s get right to it – here are 12 scientifically proven ways to be happier at work.
1. Start the day off on a good note
The expression “get off on the wrong foot” is especially relevant when it comes to happiness at work.
In one study, researchers examined the moods and performance of call center workers. Their moods at the start of the shift “primed” the rest of their day, including:
- How positively or negatively they perceived client interactions.
- How they felt after these interactions.
- How productive they were throughout the day.
So how you start your workday really matters! First, carve out some time before you start working for one of our mood-enhancing tips:
- Get in a few minutes early to chat and savor your morning coffee.
- Walk to work and take a nature route (which is beneficial in more than one way).
- Listen to your favorite music on your way to work.
(Find dozens more science-backed tips in our article on how to cheer up!)
Once your workday begins, choose your first tasks mindfully:
- Start with tasks that make you feel good.
- Don’t schedule meetings you hate first thing.
- Have some positive interactions with your colleagues.
2. Connect with your colleagues
If you think happiness at work is achieved alone, think again.
Countless studies show us that the number one key to being happier at work is building positive relationships with your colleagues.
On a certain level, you probably already knew this. A study by Officevibe found that 70% of employees believe having friends at work is the most crucial element to a happy working life.
But if you need further proof, a massive survey by the Society for Human Resource Management confirms it. They study what helps companies have the greatest impact on their employees’ happiness. The top finding? Relationships with co-workers.
Another study found that coworker relationships were far more linked to good health than your boss’ behavior and the work environment.
Whether you work in an office with hundreds of people or remotely from your home, there is always a way you can build rapport with others. Try out one of these tips:
- Check in with colleagues and ask how they are doing (professionally and personally).
- Participate in team bonding activities, after-work socials, or company events.
- Use coffee breaks to chat.
- Ask for help solving a problem (builts unity, connection, and trust).
- Collaborate on projects.
3. Acknowledge any progress you have made
You might have a bad day when things are slow and sluggish and you can’t seem to get anything done. Then, more than ever, it’s crucial for you to remember the things you have managed to do.
Why? The answer can be found in The book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. The authors found that one of the biggest causes of employee happiness is feeling like you’re making meaningful progress.
This is an important principle to remember in the age of the ever-growing to-do list. It’s easy to get distracted by all the unchecked boxes staring at you from the page. So make sure you optimize your list to let you celebrate your progress too:
- Start your work day by writing down your tasks and choosing 3 priorities.
- Don’t just delete completed tasks: check them off, or move them to a “completed” list.
- Check your list at the end of your day to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished.
Give yourself the greatest happiness boost by breaking any bigger tasks down to their smallest components. Sure, your list will get longer, but that is how much progress you’ve made - and nothing feels more satisfying than making those checkmarks!
As Joseph Conrad said:
Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.
It’s a rather natural part of socializing, and hard to stop doing. Yet unfortunately, it can easily create a toxic and unhealthy environment.
If this is what’s making you unhappy at work, you can fight against it while replacing it with a happiness-boosting habit too: actively spread positivity instead.
Research shows that discussing things that make us happy with others enhances how good we feel about them.
But there’s an important catch: the person you share your news with should respond with enthusiastic support. Otherwise, there aren’t any significant effects on happiness. So skip the Debbie Downers and find yourself a Positive Polly!
Make sure you return the favor too and show colleagues who share positive things with you that you’re happy for them. You’ll encourage them to keep doing it and spread more happiness at the same time.
5. Improve your work environment
There may be a lot you can’t change about your work. But no matter how small, there’s always a space you can call your own.
Research has brought to light many ways you can use this space to boost your happiness:
- Keep your workstation tidy and decluttered.
- Add natural plants to your workspace.
- Have vanilla or lemon scented air freshener.
- Put photos of your loved ones around your desk.
- Add art around your workspace.
- Add the color green into your environment.
You can read about the exact benefits of these and many more powerful tips in our article on how to cheer up.
6. Help a colleague
Do you make a point of trying to help your colleagues? If you want to be happier at work, maybe you should start.
Tons of research shows that helping people, whether it’s a close friend or a stranger, leads to greater happiness. Of course, this goes for work environments too. Notably, people who rate helping others at work as important are much happier with their lives 30 years later. How’s that for a long-lasting effect?
The key is making this a part of your regular routine, not just an occasional afterthought. But once you get the ball rolling, it will gain momentum on its own: happier workers help their colleagues 33% more compared to those who aren’t happy. And if you want to truly commit to this happiness tip, you can even add a reminder to your schedule!
Keep in mind you don’t need to do anything extraordinary. It can be something simple and mundane, so long as you’re offering useful help:
- Bring someone their favorite drink as you grab yours.
- Restock supplies that are running low.
- Offer to do a simple task, like type up meeting notes.
- Ask how a project is going and if they need any help.
It’s just a few minutes a week for a lifetime of greater happiness - sounds like a pretty good tradeoff!
7. Set healthy boundaries
Perhaps the reason you feel unhappy at work is that people keep overstepping your boundaries.
This might happen in dozens of different ways, with clients, colleagues, or managers:
Examples of clients breaking boundaries
- Clients ask you for details on your personal life.
- Clients speak very rudely to you (or they are simply angry at you).
- Clients want to connect on social media.
Examples of colleagues breaking boundaries
- Colleagues sit or stand too close to you.
- Colleagues use swear words or language that hurts you.
- Colleagues enter your office without knocking.
Examples of bosses breaking boundaries
- Your boss expects you to answer calls and emails outside of work hours.
- Your boss calls you on your personal phone about work issues.
- Your boss expects you to prioritize team bonding activities over family commitments.
It’s clear what you have to do: simply set better boundaries in your workplace.
Once you do, you’ll enjoy several proven benefits:
- Higher motivation.
- Sense of empowerment.
- Greater wellbeing.
Remember, you don’t need to have a dramatic confrontation. In fact, in some cases, you don’t even need to say anything! If we take the first listed example of a boss breaking boundaries, you could simply stop picking up the phone or set an automatic reply to emails outside of work hours.
At other times, a serious conversation may be necessary. If this feels nerve-racking, check out our detailed guide on how to set healthy boundaries to make this as smooth as possible.
8. Seek validation from colleagues
We all want happiness to come from within. But if you only focus on that, you’d be ignoring an important part of the picture, especially if you struggle with confidence at work.
A study compared two journal writing exercises for increasing self-esteem:
- An “inward” method – writing freely about what’s on your mind as if you’re “talking to yourself,” without showing it to anyone. The idea was for these participants to focus all their attention inward and build their own autonomy.
- An “outward” method – sending journal entries to trained psychologists and receiving positive feedback from them. These participants understood the writing exercise as talking to a psychologist who liked and appreciated them.
The results were clear – the “outward writing” participants had increased self-esteem after just two weeks. It kept increasing throughout all six weeks of the study, and some effects were still seen even four months later.
On the other hand, the participants in the “inward” group didn’t have any particular increase in self-esteem.
Does this mean you have to rely entirely on your colleagues for your sense of worth and belonging at work? Of course not! But it’s the best way to at least start building your confidence in your professional environment.
Once you have received support from others, you’ll start to feel more secure on your own too. In the study, after a few weeks, the “outward” participants started depending less on the opinions of others. Their self-esteem became more grounded in themselves.
Here are some steps to implement this tip:
- Give praise and compliments to others - many will be likely to reciprocate.
- Ask for positive feedback on how you’re doing.
- Build your skills and qualifications and let others know (post it on social media, talk about the courses you’re taking, hang a certificate on the wall, etc.)
9. Make your work goals your own
It’s already been shown that progressing toward goals increases happiness. But a lot of research focuses on goals that we choose ourselves.
This unfortunately isn’t always the case at work. You may find yourself working on any number of tasks that got plopped onto your desk. Can we still derive happiness from them?
It turns out we can, as long as they align with our own goals. A study has shown that striving towards self-congruent goals enhances the happiness that comes from making progress on them.
If you work for a company you strongly identify with, you may already be using this tip.
But even if you don’t, as two researchers point out, you can still make the company’s goals “yours”. This doesn’t mean you have to reinvent them - you just have to find some way to identify with them. For example, consider:
- The value behind the task.
- How you might grow as a person from achieving it.
- Any improvement on someone’s life as a direct or indirect result.
10. Keep good posture
Whether you spend your workday running around or sitting on a beanbag chair, the long hours of movement - or lack thereof - can take their toll.
The way you compose yourself at work doesn’t just affect your health and how confident you appear. It also directly affects your happiness.
A study compared people walking with slumped posture and upright. The latter had much more positive memories of the walk. So if your job has you on your feet, you can easily make it better just by watching how you stand.
This goes for office jobs too. Sitting straight has many positive effects on mental health:
- Increased persistence at unsolvable tasks.
- Greater confidence (also a form of happiness).
- Increased alertness and enthusiasm.
- Decreased fear.
It looks like those nagging parents and teachers were on to something after all!
11. End your workday with a moment of gratitude
Do you ever leave work feeling like everything sucked?
Not to invalidate your feelings, but your brain might be dramatizing things more than a little.
It's been found that setbacks at work had a three times bigger impact than progress. So your day may have even been mostly good - only your brain is zooming in on the three setbacks you had over the dozen successes.
There is a natural explanation for this: back in the cavemen days, it was crucial to our survival to notice potential danger. If we only focused on rainbows and flower fields, we’d soon be eaten! The modern workplace is, of course, a very different setting. But it will take many more centuries for our conditioned thoughts to catch up and adapt to our changing environment.
Luckily, we don’t have to wait that long. You can start to offset this effect today using the power of gratitude. Studies suggest that the greatest effects are seen when it’s done regularly over the long term. Choose a method that you can commit to doing every day:
- Take 5 minutes to meditate on what you’re grateful for about work.
- Write down 3 things you’re grateful for about work.
- Pair up with a work friend and tell each other 3 things you appreciate about work. In other words, focus on the good!
Aside from this, you can fight your brain’s inclination to focus on negative events by keeping a positivity journal. Jot down positive interactions and events as they happen. If things go south, you’ll be able to open it up and remind yourself of all the good things too.
12. Forget chasing happiness and focus on finding meaning in your work
This entire article has been devoted to finding ways to be happier at work.
So it might sound a bit contradictory that our last tip is to forget about chasing happiness at work. But strangely, this seems to be one of the best approaches to actually becoming happier.
A study found that prioritizing meaning rather than positivity has much greater benefits in many aspects:
- Life satisfaction.
- Positive emotions.
- A sense of coherence.
In addition, a Harvard Business Review article points out many caveats to chasing happiness with too much zeal. The authors explain that it can be downright counterproductive:
“Ever since the 18th century, people have been pointing out that the demand to be happy brings with it a heavy burden, a responsibility that can never be perfectly fulfilled. Focusing on happiness can actually make us feel less happy.
A psychological experiment recently demonstrated this. The researchers asked their subjects to watch a film that would usually make them happy - a figure skater winning a medal. But before watching the film, half of the group was asked to read out a statement about the importance of happiness in life. The other half did not.
The researchers were surprised to find that those who had read the statement about the importance of happiness actually were less happy after watching the film. Essentially, when happiness becomes a duty, it can make people feel worse if they fail to accomplish it”
In the words of French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, “Unhappiness is not only unhappiness; it is, worse yet, a failure to be happy.”
The review additionally points out that being too happy at work has a few pitfalls:
- Your performance may become worse for certain things.
- It’s exhausting to try to maintain nonstop.
- It can make you too needy with your boss.
- It can make you start treating your private lives like work tasks, hurting your non-work relationships.
- It can make losing your job devastating.
- It can make you lonely and selfish.
So our parting tip for you is: set yourself free from the shackles of needing to be happy. Focus instead on finding meaning in your work, and you’ll find that happiness naturally follows.
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Now you’ve got 12 science-backed tips for being happier at work. No matter what kind of job you have - whether you’re an avalanche forecaster or a dog taster - you can find more happiness in your work as soon as tomorrow.
What’s your job and what are you doing to make yourself feel happier at work? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!