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Happiness at work depends on your perspective

Are you happy with your job? A lot of people aren’t. For several years, Gallup's employee engagement survey has shown that only about 30 percent of American workers are engaged in their jobs. Research by the Pew Foundation shows that 30 percent of Americans see their jobs as just “something to get by.” The research also showed that being happy with your jobs tend to correlate with being happy with the rest of your life. So what do you do if you’re not happy with your job? Shift your perspective.

Humans have what researchers call a set point or a baseline of happiness. This is a level of happiness we return to after a good or bad event. We also have a natural bias to focus on negative things—an evolutionary response to living in a dangerous environment. But scientists have discovered that we can change both our response to negative things and our set point by changing our focus. Identify what recurring thoughts you have around your work and whether you’re looking at your job as a whole—the whole environment—or whether you tend to obsess on a few negative things. It could be that you’ve forgotten what you love about your role or your company. It also could be that you’re stuck in negative thought patterns. When we deliberately focus on gratitude, positivity, and helping others, we become happier. So happiness is work—good work.

Guess what? Your childhood influences your career choice

In recent years, I helped several thought leaders write books about being happy—or, more importantly, fulfilled—at work. One was Repurpose Your Career: A Practical Guide to the Second Half of Life. The other was Meaning at Work and Its Hidden Languages.

Both books point out that people leave out key factors when they’re looking for a job, which influences how they feel about the job. For example, they may focus only on money, scheduling, skills, and proximity. But jobs entail a lot more than that. They’re about relationships, whether we feel like we’re contributing in an arena that aligns with our values, or are rewarded in ways that matter to us. While these factors may not play a conscious role in what job we choose, they may play an unconscious role. A study on career choice concluded: “People choose an occupation that enables them to replicate significant childhood experiences, fulfill needs that were unfulfilled in their childhood or actualize occupational dreams, professional patterns and expectations passed on to them by the familial heritage."

People leave out key factors when they're looking for a job, which influences how they feel about the job. They may focus only on money, scheduling, skills, and proximity. But jobs entail a lot more than that.

So you may think you picked a job because of the pay—which was on your list of priorities—and not realize you were also drawn to the opportunity to solve problems,

It’s why we sometimes end up in careers we didn’t see coming. Like Nikita Harrell, a customer care manager for Pepsi Bottling Ventures, fell into a customer service career after working in financial services, and discovered it was perfect for her. She loved the pace, the challenges of human interaction in the process of serving customers, the ability to help her team find and grow their own skills and talents. Other customer service professionals find the job provides an opportunity to talk to a variety of different people, solve customers’ problems, and bolster an employers’ brand in a fast-paced environment where stress can help forge bonds.

It’s all about where you focus. If you make a comprehensive list of all the variables that actually contribute to your happiness—office environment, friendly people, availability of snacks, or whatever—you have a much better shot at finding positive things to focus on and look for in your next place of employment.

[Also read: Odds are your career will be an epic road trip]

Know your strengths

Jobs provide a unique opportunity to discover our real strengths and passions through noticing how certain tasks or interactions feel, and which ones we tackle successfully most of the time. Research that culminated in Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More by UC Berkeley professor Morten Hansen revealed that people perform much better, and are happier, when they focus intently on doing the tasks they personally value. But we can’t focus on those until we take some time to understand what those are, and why.

There are a number of passion quadrants that show where your work (or other) passions lie. One I saw looked like this:

  • Things you’re bad at, and you hate—aka “hell”
  • Things you’re good at, but don’t like—aka the “trap”
  • Things you’re not that good at yet, but really enjoy—aka “growth” opportunities
  • Things you’re good at, and you enjoy—aka “heaven”

While “heaven” is the ideal place to be, the “growth” quadrant is key to helping identify and understand which tasks and responsibilities you’re good at, and that you enjoy, so you can be more conscious about how you invest your working hours and shape your career. Many people never do an exercise like this. Maybe introspective thinking is a struggle, or maybe you figure it won’t make a difference because you have to

If you make a comprehensive list of all the variables that actually contribute to your happiness, you have a much better shot at finding positive things to focus on and look for in your next place of employment.

But it does make a difference. Listing tasks and responsibilities in this way can help you—or your team—make choices and set clear intentions, which is the surest way to getting where one wants to be.

Going back to the customer service example, for some it may be fun to do the detective work to investigate an incorrect charge, while talking to people all day feels exhausting. That’s a clue about where their strengths and focus should be—and what other support-related careers might be a good fit. Using your job to help identify which parts make you miserable and where you excel can lead to a great career.

[Also read: 4 ways customer support agents can make a career pivot]

Jack Bergstrand, chief executive of Atlanta-based consulting firm Brand Velocity, uses four other descriptors to categorize strengths: envision, design, build, and operate.

A person with an envision strength loves coming up with new ideas or taking an imaginative approach to problems. They enjoy thinking about the future and how things could be improved in a big picture way, whereas those with a designer strength like analyzing, creating performance measures, and using data to find answers.

Using your job to help identify which parts make you miserable and where you excel can lead to a great career.

Someone with builder strength likes implementing procedures, defining job parameters, and implementing projects to meet benchmarks whereas someone with an operator strength likes connecting with people, coaching, serving customers, and managing employees.

In certain fields, like customer service, you may have whole teams of operators. That makes sense. But you may also have team members with strengths in the other areas that are crucial to their company’s success. For example, someone might not love talking to customers as much as they enjoy thinking up better ways to channel customers toward emerging service channels. Both are important to the business.

We all have a different sense of what’s important and where we want to contribute. The more you understand what you love and where your strengths lie, the better contributor and team member you’re likely to be. You’ll also be a greater asset to your company, when you’re helping both the business and yourself succeed together.