How to Stay Happy at Work (We Promise, It's Not Too Good to Be True)

Starting a good job is a little like entering a relationship.

During the honeymoon phase, you’re intoxicated. Everyone and everything is great. But the high wears off, and what follows is either a stable, happy groove or the axe—with some murky water until you get there. Sigh.

Needless to say, in work (and in love), you probably prefer the stable, happy route. The secret? Staying engaged in your job.

Good news: If you’re willing to work at it, you can avoid the disengagement trap. Here’s how.

What Engagement Looks Like

Engaged employees are hard at work advancing their careers. Their commitment is self-evident and their forward inertia is palpable.

Above all their focus for themselves and their company is, in a word, progress.

A Harvard Business Review study found that making progress at work is the single biggest contributor to a positive “inner work life,” which refers to all the things we think and feel throughout the workday. A positive inner work life, it was found, breeds something incredibly valuable—creative productivity.

Translation: the outward signs of an engaged employee often go hand-in-hand with a fiery inside that’s deeply committed to and rewarded by work.

While it’s true that some things are out of your hands—a meddling boss; a dreary upholstered cube—you have more control over that inner flame than you know.

First, Know Thyself

Contrary to popular belief, a good, fulfilling job that makes you happy is not just a set of fortuitous circumstances you stumble into. It’s often the product of a set of core principles that empower you to weed out people and places that don’t suit you.

You should be able to cross-check any job, current or future, against a set of personal criteria. Thrive off a sense of autonomy? Don’t waste a second requesting a transfer to flee your micromanager. Like to work collaboratively? Decline the offer from that three-person company. Not sure what you value most?

Map Your Job to Your Success—and Your Company’s

It’s hard to feel good about work if you don’t know what you’re working toward. To that end, it’s helpful to put your job in perspective in two ways: where it’s taking you and where it’s taking your company. These answers are the anchor that can moor you during your this-can’t-be-my-life existential crisis on Monday morning.

So, on a personal level: If I stick around, what are my prospects? If I do well, what’s the reward? Where is this taking me?

On a company level: How does what I do contribute to the company’s success?

Employees who know their company vision and see themselves in it are often more engaged than their confused counterparts. If you’re struggling to link a project to a company’s vision, talk to your manager about where the company is going and how your role contributes to that future.

Learn the Upside of Being Challenged

If your job bores you, there’s no way you’ll be happy long term. The simplest way to avoid boredom is to switch things up by seeking new challenges and opportunities. Ask your boss for a big project to tackle, or start tinkering on the sidelines on one of your own.

If you view challenges as threatening, then it may be time to re-work your thinking. How? By adopting what’s called a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, setbacks are seen as opportunities to learn a new set of skills. Because when you’re looking to stretch yourself at work, you may make a mistake or two. Don’t let that hold you back.

The key to valuing the outcome of your next work hiccup is to remember that these mistakes don’t define you. Instead, they shape how you tackle similar problems in the future. As Carol Dweck puts it in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “It’s not about immediate perfection, it’s about confronting challenge and making progress.”

Communicate

Forty-three percent of highly engaged employees receive feedback every week. How else do you know whether you’re tracking toward success?

Ask your boss for a weekly one-on-one, and make good use of it. Arrive with an agenda and make a point of extracting honest feedback. Speak openly and honestly about what you’re working toward and how your boss can help you get there.

Get Involved

Fact: work is not high school. Also fact: Who did the teachers love back then, the kids who lurked menacingly on the front steps after 3 PM, or the ones who stuck around for clubs, sports, band, and so forth? Yep—the latter.

Same principle applies to the workplace. Being involved is a sign of benevolence as much as ambition. Can’t go wrong.

Takeaway

Engaged isn’t something you wake up and decide to be. It’s an outlook and a set of habits cultivated with intention over time. These tips can get you started, but like any successful relationship, the one you have with work takes constant kindling.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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