How to be Happy at Work
Careers have become dynamic. A once static part of life, marked by loyalty to company and worker, a job is a means to a personal end. People don’t stick with companies as long as they used to. Reflecting on my career path and a curiosity in how it fits in the greater narrative drove me down the exploration in this essay.
A search for “why to leave a job” returns thousands of results. Typical responses include being offered a promotion at another company, searching for a new challenge, or being offered a pay increase. In reality, there’s often a less culturally acceptable reason, like not being happy, satisfied, or passionate about the work. This isn’t a sentiment future employers want to hear. It implies you may be flighty, tough to please, or difficult to get along with.
Yet, I think most people would agree that we would change jobs less often if we were happier at work. Does feeling satisfied with your job get too much weight in the decision-making process? How do we become happy (or happier) at work?
A Brief Personal History
Job hopping has a negative connotation. It’s more apt to say job searching. I forget where I saw the information, but the takeaway is that most millennials will change jobs 20 times over the course of their careers. That feels like a slight stretch, though believable. Everyone I knew through my 20’s was constantly changing jobs. As we’ve all aged, that frequency has declined.
I graduated college at the end of 2008. The full-time job I lined up through an internship at Volvo Financial Services fell apart 2 weeks before the semester ended. The US financial markets were in shambles and the firm was no longer supporting, much less growing, its communication and marketing staff. This job was the main evidence I had when I asked my girlfriend’s father if I could marry her. Now, we were engaged and I had no back up plan.
With few prospects, I started applying for jobs rapidly. I wrote cover letters daily. I edited my resume to match the job description. These things became routine. I applied for any job that remotely felt like a fit. Almost all of my friends were in the same position.
Disregarding my newly acquired and expensive college degree, I even applied to service jobs that didn’t require more than a high school diploma. I got one call back from FedEx for a group onsite interview. It was for the overnight shift sorting packages. The interview lasted for two hours on a cold January morning from 4-6 a.m. and included a long questionnaire and a tour of the warehouse. I’m not sure how I answered the questionnaire, but I assume I didn’t match the criteria because I never got a call back.
My heart raced when I saw I got an email from the Triangle Business Journal to interview for a reporting job. I aced the phone interview, drove to Raleigh for the in-person in an 1980s-era fluorescent-lit office building, and felt great about the prospect. The hiring manager called to offer me the job. Starting salary $19,000 per year. I was desperate for a job, but this job and this salary felt like the wrong place to start my career. I declined the offer.
I wanted to embrace the moment of unemployed freedom, but I was burning through savings and sleeping cold at night. During the day, I’d walk to The Green Bean coffee shop from my apartment to scan job postings and apply. After 6 weeks of unemployment I got a call from Randolph Hospital for a public relations position. The conditions all felt right, so I took the job.
Yet, after a few months on the job, I was still scrolling through job ads. Curious to see what other options existed, how I would apply, if it might be a better fit, I checked the sites daily. Applying for a job felt like low-risk gambling. What’s the harm in throwing your resume into the pile. The worst that happens is you get a call back. Right?
Job Changing Expert
Being happy at work seems like a modern, privileged idea. For most of human existence and to this day, people work to meet basic needs. Happiness is not a factor in whether to keep the job or not. Yet, for many college educated, upper middle class (white) people, optionality and opportunity are apparent.
I’ve worked for 7 different companies in the past 12 years. In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the average number of jobs in a lifetime is 12. Additionally, BLS reports that most workers spend less than 5 years in every job.
This space is commonly called the “job market.” A market has supply and demand. There’s competition for resources (people and positions). When I graduated from college, due to the economic crises at the time, job supply was low and demand was high. It forced me to differentiate myself by investing time in the application process, honing my interview skills, staying sharp with existing knowledge, and building new skillsets. In an ideal world, markets balance out and the personal investment pays off.
James Clear writes about building habits. These small automatic processes overtake our lives whether we intentionally design them or let our non-conscious lead the way. Being in a job-searching phase of life leads to its own sets of habits. That might look something like:
Scroll job boards
Submit an application
You get the idea. Life revolves around finding a job. Habits form out of the ever present anxiety. Even if you pause those efforts to say, read a book or play guitar, joblessness is still present in your mind. You don’t rest until there’s a sign of hope – an email, phone call, or interview. The worst type of response an employer can send at this stage is no response at all.
The habits job-seekers cultivate cannot be easily dismissed. People can spend months checking job boards, reading position descriptions, dreaming about what that job might look like – using Google maps to check commute times, see the street view, look for photos of the office interior, or scroll through existing employees LinkedIn profiles. The cumulative effects of these stacked habits becomes difficult to break when that glorious day comes. If you search for a job long enough, build routines around it, and form compounding habits, you just might become a job changing expert.
Life After Hired
Starting a new job is like the first day of school at a new school. You generally get the idea of why you’re there, but you don’t know the people, the building layout, or the culture. Acclimation to a new job takes time. There are hundreds of companies that specialize in helping other companies improve their new employee experience. Good companies know that first impressions matter when it comes to retaining talented people.
The introduction of this job into your life forces you to stop some of your previous job-seeking routines and start new ones. You’re still checking your email, but not with bated breath for an email response to a job application. You’re still scrolling LinkedIn, but this time it’s to read comments on your “I started a new job” post. In general, the thought of what other jobs there may be out there isn’t an ever present thought.
Then, at some critical or dull moment, there is a draw to leave your job. An annoying coworker. A micromanaging boss. Lack of executive leadership. A feeling of ineffectiveness. The list goes on. These negative moments might happen infrequently, become static, or slowly build. If your patience or determination is low or the events are so amazingly, acutely bad, then this is a watershed moment. Now is the time to make a choice: stick with it or leave and restart the familiar job search.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are appropriate and justifiable reasons to leave a job, like abuse or malfeasance. These are not the cases I’m talking about. More often than not, we leave jobs because of something more insignificant. The most common reason I hear from friends is because they’re not happy. I’ve said this too. It’s an easy, concise reason to give your friends and family when you tell them you’re quitting your job. The real reason is what made you unhappy – the poor boss, a slight from a coworker, and so on.
Either way, you’re at this watershed moment. The easiest path forward is quitting. Plus, you’re a job changing expert who hasn’t fully abandoned or forgotten the old job-searching habits and routines yet. You still scroll the job boards wondering what options are available – minus the anxiety of actually needing a job. You’ve been conditioned that the ultimate expression of modern life is choice. The unspoken maxim across nearly every sector of life is: Where there is endless choice, there is a freedom.
Yet, there is another option. You can stick with it. We’ve all seen people stay in jobs for a long time. My dad has been with the same company for over 20 years. Before that, he was with an employer for 15. Older generations were proud of their loyalty to an employer and were rewarded – socially and financially – for it. Being a “company man” was a badge of honor.
A quick Google search around this topic reveals headlines like Can Staying With a Company Too Long Hurt Your Career? and True Or False? 'Employees Today Only Stay One Or Two Years’. The significant number of articles written on this topic proves interest and need. People are looking for reassurance to stay or justification for leaving a job. They’ll find an article to support whichever way they lean.
Staying at a job because of financial or social pressure without addressing the root concern leads to toxicity. Some people stick with a job because the obstacles of leaving are too large. And instead of reframing the situation, adjusting one’s attitude, or choosing positive or Stoic thinking in this circumstance, they turn toxic. Toxic employees spread gossip about workers, sabotage projects, or merely complain at every turn. This is a road that leads to ruin: misery or unemployment.
Happiness is Not the Point
There’s another way to stick with a job past the inevitable negative moments. It does not involve willing yourself into a positive mood every morning. It is not dispassionate trudging through a to-do list, or at worst, apathy. Marty Cagan calls these types of people mercenaries. Doing work for a paycheck and other surface-level rewards. Alternatively, Cagan urges employers to develop missionaries. These individuals believe in the difference their work makes. Their mission is rooted in providing value to coworkers.
Happiness is an emotion that cannot be aimed directly at. It is an oasis in the desert, an optical illusion. The more it’s pursued, the less it is gained. So, how can you be happy at work? Focus less on being happy. Instead, redirect that desire and energy towards providing value to the people around you – coworkers, clients, interns, support staff.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I once heard someone say the quickest way to make a positive impression at work is to ask your manager (or someone even more senior) what they enjoyed least about the job and find a way to do it for them. This is an act of searching for how to provide value with the goal of moving up or making a lasting impression on people with power. Now, this approach may lead to taking on tasks that feel beneath you or outside of your area of expertise. The point is not the actual task, but the action and result you provide the other person.
Value is subjective. Benjamin Franklin wrote inPoor Richard’s Almanack, “Beauty, like supreme dominion, is but supported by opinion.” What is valuable is the same. The only way for you to know what is valuable to someone is to ask them. If you’re close enough, watch their actions: what do they prioritize, fret over, bring up in conversation. Before you can provide value to someone, you must know what is valuable to them.
There have been no definitive studies to prove that people who provide value to others stay in their jobs longer or are happier in general. Yet, plenty of observational and ethnographic studies tie these concepts together. And my own experience confirms the thesis of this essay: providing value to others is fulfilling and positively reinforces the centripetal motion of a job-in-hand. Doing something valuable at work is the quickest way to avoid the mouse trap of job-changing habits. It’s the clearest way to remain positive in the face of inevitable challenges and frustrations. It is the closest we’ll get to being happy at work.