There was a lot of attention to the fact that 2021 was, according to Forbes Magazine, the year of the great resignation.

Which begs the question: what makes people happy at work?

It’s a pretty broad query, and obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all.

I would argue that “dream job” and “happy at work” are two loaded terms. Like “match made in heaven” and “having it all” they join the ranks of expectations that set us up for disappointment.

So, let's take a quick look at some research around happiness at work, why is this even important, and why it matters. I will give you my definition of happiness at work. And then we are going to get into some Top Tips: actions that you can take right now that will make a difference in your happiness at work.

But first, let’s take a quick look at some research around happiness at work – what is the psychology behind it, and why it matters. And to do that properly, some myth-busting is in order.

We have all been taught that success equals happiness. But the research done by psychologists and scientists tells us it is actually the opposite. We need to flip the order of that statement because, in fact, happiness equals success.

While difficult to measure, happiness is usually an attribute of an individual and it’s based more on an internal experience than external factors like promotions and financial reward. Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph.D. is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology. According to Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener (2005), numerous studies have shown that happy people tend to be successful across multiple domains in life, including work performance, health, income, friendship, and even marriage.

At some point, we have all said, “I will be really happy when “X” happens, or “I’ll be really happy when I get promoted to manager,” or “when I lose the last 10 pounds.” Psychologists call this kind of thinking conditional happiness. We all know eagerly anticipating some future event or passionately imagining some future scenario will not result in any kind of lasting happiness. In fact, what research shows is that in those moments when you do achieve "X" you are in fact, a little bit happier, but it’s a tiny burst of happiness. You get a mini spike of happiness and that lasts for a short period of time and then you tend to go back to your baseline. In other words, lasting happiness comes from our mindset. We need to focus on the way that we approach things, the way that we view the world.

Mindset is clearly is what reflects most on how people experience work. Are they naturally trying to be positive, make things work, trying to see the best in people or is it the opposite? Perception is reality. If you perceive something as stressful, it will feel more stressful. If you perceive something as joyful – that is exactly how it will feel.

Ok, so let’s make this personal. What does happiness at work mean for you?

When I think about this, I think there are three questions you need to ask yourself to determine if you are happy at work.

Am I having an impact?

Is your work having an impact? Are you achieving in some way? If you’re like me, I want my work to matter, and I want to feel that my contribution is making a difference.

Am I working with the right people?

Are you working with quality people? Are they high-energy, positive people whom you can trust? Do they inspire you to up your skills and bring your a-game?

Am I growing?

If a job is fulfilling, you will be learning and stretching yourself in some way. I love to be challenged and inspired. I want to learn new things and to be in an environment that encourages innovation.

Now, all of these things may sound like a high bar, but I am answering the question, “when am I happiest at work?” When I am more realistic, I would probably be happy with just one or two of those things at a certain time. I don’t expect all of those things all of the time. So, ask yourself, when have I been happiest at work? What was happening? Who was I working with? What kind of work was I doing? This is a great exercise that will bring more self-awareness and allow you to name those things that are most important to you.

At the beginning of this, I promised you some Top Tips to help you take some small steps that can have some real results in achieving more happiness at work. So here we go. Here are 4 things for you to focus on that will begin to bring you more happiness at work.

  1. RELATIONSHIPS – The quality of our relationships is the #1 factor in determining our happiness. Period. And it’s important to note here that it is not the quantity of relationships that matters. Evaluate what meaningful relationships you have with people at work and how much time you make for those relationships.

    So, how can we improve the quality of our relationships at work? My suggestion here is that this is more than a quick chat before or after a meeting. This looks more like getting a coffee with someone or grabbing lunch. Start out with the people that you naturally gravitate towards and work at expanding that circle.

  2. VALUES – Now, what does that even mean? Everyone has their own definition of values, but for me, these are your career must-haves and dealbreakers.Your values will become your GPS and they will guide you throughout your career. They can and will shift and change as you shift and change. Think of your values as the building blocks to fundamentally understanding why and how you can be happy at work.

    How do you figure that out? I want you to think back to projects, teams, organizations where you have been most happy. What was happening at those times? That will give you some clues as to what your values are and what is most important to you. Conversely, when you have been most miserable – try to hone in on the source of your unhappiness.

  3. DEEP WORK – I like to think of this as when you are in your flow. We all know that feeling: the times you are focused and concentrating. It is when you are doing deep, meaningful work without distractions. It is the counterpoint to that question we ask ourselves on Friday – what did I even do this week?

    This one takes deliberate action and attention. You need to carve out time to do concentrated work that is meaningful to you, otherwise, the small trivial stuff will swallow your day. Think about what is one project that I can make significant progress on? Once you have answered that question, then plan how you are going to create that time. Maybe it’s blocking out time in your calendar with a “fake meeting,” maybe it’s doing some extra bit of work before you officially start your day. Find what works for you in your life and will be manageable within the parameters of your organization. Deep work makes a difference to your happiness – find something that YOU want to do and make a promise to yourself to get it done.

  4. SHARE POSITIVE EXPERIENCES – This one ties back to where we started – our mindset. We are all really great at complaining at the end of the day to our partner or friend. My suggestion here is to bring a bit more deliberate thought to the good things that happened at work. And it needs to be said out loud or written down. You can’t just keep it floating in your brain (although sometimes that works for me!).

    How to do this one: it’s important that it gets written down so note it in a gratitude journal or text a friend or a family member – do what works for you, but allow yourself to enjoy the good stuff when you can.

There’s a lot of to think about in order to personalize your happiness at work. But if you begin by taking a moment or two and thinking about a job that you really liked – what was it that you really loved – the people? The work? Your role? You begin to create your own career must-haves and dealbreakers. That awareness alone will set you down a path of creating a career (or a job for that matter) that will bring you closer to your unique definition of happiness at work.