How to make yourself happy at work: Attention, Intention, Action

So you want to be happy at work. What should you do?

There are certainly enough things on the menu. Should you read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? Or maybe the Getting Things Done system is right for you. You could focus on Personal Excellence or develop Brand You. Is coaching what you need? Or to learn to coach others? Assertiveness? Maybe some anti-stress training. Or some conflict mediation. Career counselling? Or developing your communication skills, your presentation skills or your…

The options are almost endless and most of them are even pretty good. But it’s better to start somewhere else. With something even simpler. Something more basic.

The best model I know for creating positive, effective change is attention, intention, action. And in the case of happiness we have to it positively, so the model becomes:

  1. Positive attention – notice what’s already good and what has worked previously
  2. Positive intention – make a positive intention that focuses on what you want more off, not what you want to avoid
  3. Positive action- do something positive to fulfill your intention

Let’s starts with attention.

Think back to some previous happiness at work

First think back to a situation where you were happy at work. It can be at your current job or at a previous job.

It’s important that you think back to a specific situation. Not just “Man, working for Acme Inc. was great” but, say, “Man, that time at Acme where we completed the Hansen project and had a huge party – that was great”.

It doesn’t have to be your best work experience ever – just a pretty good one.

This can be surprisingly difficult. Most people have an easier time remembering bad experiences, and thinking back to the good days takes a little work. If you can’t find a specific experience at work, think back to your school days or maybe to something you’ve done outside of work, say in the community, in your children’s school or elsewhere.

Take your time and find a specific situation where you were happy at work. Write it down. Then find two more and write them down as well.

QuestionFor each of the three good experiences you’ve remembered, write down short answers to each of the following questions:
1: What happened? What were the circumstances? Who was involved? What did you do?

2: How was it? What did it feel like? Why was it a good experience?

3: What did it do to the quality of your work?

4: How were your relations with co-workers, customers, suppliers and/or others at work?

5: How did it affect you outside of work?

6: Write down at least five things that made this experience possible. Which people, values, practices, tools etc. were involved and made this great experience happen?

Write down at least five things from this experience that would you like to have more of in the future to make you happier at work?

Take some time and answer the questions for each of the three good experiences you’ve remembered.

This exercise is great for a number of reasons:
You remember previous good experiences at work
It’s so easy to think back to that lousy boss you had three years ago, but surprisingly difficult to think back to that great team you worked with last year. Most of us tend to take good experiences for granted and to focus more on problems, annoying people and negative situations.

This exercise trains your ability to also remember good experiences.

You unearth real-life experiences
It’s tempting to make a list of “Things that will make me happy at work” and then populate that list with all the traditional trappings of a good job. You know – a raise, a promotion, the corner office, the key to the executive bathroom etc…

This exercise looks back to specific situations where you were happy, and thus avoids this trap. Instead you get a list of things that have made you happy at work previously. These things are of course highly likely to work again in the future.

You get a blueprint for what it takes to make you happy at work
There are an infinite number of things we want to avoid at work from bad managers and annoying co-workers to stress, overwork, physical injury, bullying and much, much more. So you can’t really choose your future work life based on what you want to avoid. And even if you could avoid all the things that make work bad – who is to say that that will actually make work good? It takes more than the absence of annoyances and problems to be happy at work.

That’s why you need to choose your work future based on what you want, not on what you don’t want. And this exercise gives you just that – a list of things that make you happy at work.

It’s fun and energizing
It may be harder but it’s also a lot more fun to think back to the good experiences at work. Thinking back only to the bad experiences makes you feel sad and powerless. Thinking back to the good stuff gives you more energy and faith in a good job future.

What you’ve just done here, is an exercise based on Appreciative Inquiry, an excellent method which holds that the best way to change is to focus on what worked previuosly and what you want more of in the future – rather than on all the earlier problems you want to avoid.

Take stock of your current situation

Here’s what you must know: You can be happy at work. In the previous exercise you found earlier examples where you were happy at wok, and you learned what it took to create those situations.

But the work you can be happy at may not be the work you currently have. It depends on many factors, but mostly on the match between you, your job and the people there. The story of Maria in chapter X shows that sometimes you need to cut and run from a bad work situation. There may not even be anything wrong with the company, it may just be a bad fit for you.

So let’s see where you’re at. First how happy are you at work? This is where the book could’ve included a 200 question survey to tell you how happy you are at work, but seriously – you know already, don’t you? When you consider everything that’s good or bad about your job and the people you work with, you know quite well which of these three categories you fall into:

  • Argh! – I hate my job and would rather walk a mile across broken glass than ever go in again
  • Meh! – I can take it or leave it. It’s kinda OK.
  • Yay! – I love my job and would pay to work there. Please don’t tell them I said that last part.

How do you rate your current job?

Secondly: Where do you want to be at? Few people will accept Argh! for any long period of time, but maybe Meh! is fine with you? Maybe a high Meh, somewhere near Yay!? Or does it have to be Yay! or nothing?

What do you want work to be like?

Form an intention

Based on your assesment, the first decision you’re facing is this: Do I need to do something or are things fine the way they are. Remember: Nobody’s saying that you must be happy at work. Being happy at work is a choice that entails consequences and effort, and only you know whether it’s the right choice for you.

Even if you’re already at Yay! you can still decide to make your job more enjoyable or, even better, choose to spread some of that work-happiness to your co-workers.

If you’re at Argh! I can only advice you to do something about it as soon as humanly possible.

Maybe you’re at Meh!, but fine with that because hey, work’s just not that important to you. But maybe, just maybe, you’re current job is a Meh! but you’ve once been at Yay! and you miss the energy, the fun, the camaraderie and the sheer unadulterated happiness that comes with that kind of work experience. Your worklife can be at Yay! If you decide to make it so.

Here’s the deal: As mentioned in chapter X, your happiness at work is your responsibility. You can’t wait for your boss, your co-workers or the company to make you happy. If that’s your plan, odds are that very little will happen.

That’s the intention you can consider starting with. And here’s the important thing: Don’t make it a fixed goal – you know – like I absolutely have to stop smoking / lose 20 pounds / start exercsising / whatever. The thing is, that kind of firm choice doesn’t really work, which is proven by the fact that only 7% of all people live up to their new years resolutions.

Make it an intention instead. Here are some examples:

  • I would like to be a little happier at work
  • I want to be a better manager and make my people a little happier
  • I want to enjoy work more so I can be a nicer person at home
  • I would love to relate better to my customers

Don’t get me wrong: The intention itself won’t make you happy. It’s not like you can choose to be happy at work and, poof, you’re happy. But it’s easier to start and take positive action when you have a clear intention.

Make sure to make it a positive intention, focused on something you want, not something you want to avoid. You can’t really define your future worklife beased on the things you want to avoid, for several reasons:

  • We tend to get more of what we focus on. If we focus on the things we want to avoid, we unfortunately tend to get more of those.
  • There are an almost infinite number of things to avoid at work. You can always add more to the list. Finding out what’ll make you happy is much easier and more manageable.
  • Even if you managed to avoid all the things that make you unhappy at work, that still doesn’e mean you’ll be happy – it only means you won’t be unhappy. In other words, avoiding the bad stuff can take you to Meh! but no further. To go to Yay! you need to look at what makes you happy at work.

So make a positive intention, and then do something about it – that’s the positive action in the model mentioned above. Fortunately, the things you can do are easy, simple and fun. We’ll look at them in the next chapter.

First there’s one very basic choice to consider.

Should I stay or should I go

If you’ve decided that you’d like to be a little happier at work, the next choice you’re facing is this: Should I try to become happy in my current job, or is that too hard? Can you make things better? Is the culture changeable or totally set? Have you tried? How did it go?

There are two possible options:

  • Change is possible. It may not be easy or fast, but things can get better at my current job.
  • Change is not possible. The culture is too fixed or change will simply be too hard.

Where is your current job at? Remember that:

  • You may not need to change the whole company. Affecting your own team or department may be all that’s needed.
  • Often we think change is impossible, but we’re simply underestimating our own abilities. Remember the story of the nurses at H4 from chapter X.
  • There is no such thing as “A Dream Job”. Any job is as good as you make it.

Only you can know the truth of your situation, and the important thing here is to give your current job a chance to make you happy, but not break yourself trying to change the unchangeable.

If you decide that your current job can’t make you happy, consider moving on as quickly as possible. This is of course an intention with serious consequences, including loss of identity, prestige and economic security. Again: Only you can make that choice.

Michael was stuck in a job he hated. Being the sales manager of an IT company may sound nice, but the reality for this father of two was stress, conflict, backstabbing, internatl competition and tons of overwork.

Michael really wanted to get out ut couldn’t see how. His salary was great and his economic situation was just too tight. Even with his wife working also, they still only barely managed to make the payments on their house and cars. Saving up for an annual family holiday was a struggle very year and they lived in constant fear of large unforseen expenses.

Finally, one internal office power struggle became too much and Michael quit his job in disgust. He found a new job at a much nicer company, but at only half the salary. The family took stock of their new situation, and a depressing fact became clear: They could not afford to keep the house. After some deliberation they sold it and moved into a much smaller appartment.

A year later, Michael took stock of his situation and had this to say: “Quitting that job is the best thing I’ve ever done for my family, and my only regret is, that I didn’t do it much sooner. It’s true that I came home to a nice house in the suburbs. But it’s also true that I usually came home too tired to play with my sons and too stressed and angry to talk to my wife.”

“Now I come home at a reasonable hour happy, relaxed and ready to enjoy family life. The kids may not love having to share a roome where before they had their own, but let me tell you this: Noone in this family would trade our current situation for what we had a year ago.”

I will say this though: It is frighteningly easy to stay in an unhappy work situation simply for the salary and the stability. Many people do this year after year. The worst part is that the longer you put up with an unhappy job:

  • The easier it gets to to live with.
  • The harder it gets to remember how much fun work can be
  • The harder it gets to move on and do something about it

My advice: If you decide that you can’t be happy in your current job, do something about it as soon as possible.

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