In an ideal world, we'd all have full control of our professional destinies and be able to choose the work life we wanted. But that's hardly always true these days, in a time of recession, layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs. Many of us are enduring far less than stellar arrangements at work.
Gretchen Rubin, author of a blog called The Happiness Project and a bestselling book with the same name, says we're experiencing "happiness challenges" at work today. When we lack the power to freely choose what we do--for instance if we've taken a job at a lower level to maintain income and health insurance, or we've taken on more responsibility with no additional pay because our colleagues have been laid off--our morale can take a nosedive. "Moving backward is a happiness challenge," she says.
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We may even assume that finding happiness on this job might be too much to ask in this economy. Rubin says you should always be saying to yourself, "How can I be happier?"
She says that feeling of being in control of our lives depends a lot on how satisfied we feel at work and also on whether we're operating in an "atmosphere of growth." If you feel supported by your boss, know you are cared about and appreciated and efforts are being made to help you grow professionally, you'll definitely be more content.
Kristen Massaro, director of social media and communications at STC Associates, a New York City branding company, rose to her current job after she requested training in social media skills. She investigated workshops offered through industry associations and presented her findings to her company's chief executive officer.
The CEO, Sophie Ann Terrisse, says she was thrilled to invest in the training. She has noticed the importance of giving her employees "ownership" of specific programs or services. "We all realize that the stakes have changed," she says. "Rewards in the form of vacations and bonuses may not be possible, but people still want to grow." She values training like the kind Massaro requested as a way of expanding what her firm can offer its people. Massaro now feels she has far more authority, and she's widening the company's use of social media.
Gretchen Rubin says people tend to feel happier at work when they know they can do their work in their own way too. Amy Owen, for instance, was working in product development for an educational publishing company when she decided it was time for her to leave New York. She had worked closely with a team in Chicago, so she investigated the company policies on transferring and working remotely. The timing was right and they let her make a move to Illinois.
"The move came with conditions," she says. "The cost of living is higher in New York, so salaries were higher. I had to agree to not get a raise. But I liked being remote."
Later on, a corporate restructuring led to changes that left Owen dissatisfied with her job. An editorial position opened up, and she requested it. After several meetings and interviews, she heard nothing until the opportunity simply disappeared. Disenchanted, she started looking for work elsewhere. Now she works for an education nonprofit--remotely.
Rubin highly recommends making friends at work, mainly for personal satisfaction but also because they may be the source of your next job opportunity. "Make a personal investment in the people around you," she says, "even if you think you're there only temporarily. People who have close relationships at work are happier."
She also suggests taking a little time to think about what exactly makes you unhappy at work. "If there are certain things in your workplace that you can remove, go about getting rid of them. Junk food, the mess in the kitchen--take responsibility for making these things better. And another major source of unhappiness is commuting. Adopting staggered hours or remote working arrangements can make people feel trusted and responsible."
She recommends audio books for those who commute. "I had a friend in Washington with a terrible commute. She started listening to audio books and often found herself sitting the car in her driveway for an extra five minutes to finish a chapter."
Don't forget all-around wellness as part of your pursuit of happiness. Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep and exercise, and get up on time. Get your energy level up so you can fully engage with others.
Rubin also urges you to go ahead and ask for any equipment you think you need. She herself was elated after she installed a second and third computer monitor in her workspace. You may not be the only person you please by pursuing work tools or training, she adds: "When you make moves to make things better for yourself at work, you may get positive attention from the boss, who could be impressed by your motivation."
Managers, meanwhile, should always bear in mind how much more productive workers are when they're happy, Rubin says. They are absent less, they make better leaders and they're more willing to help their co-workers. Happiness is especially important in sales, because other people are attracted to those who appear genuinely cheerful.
Terrisse says that keeping workers happy is important because that's how you retain your most talented people. "It takes so much more time to get a new employee hired, trained and working effectively than to keep an existing employee on board," she observes.
When making a request for a change that will increase your happiness, be very clear about how it will benefit the company, Terrisse says. "We have helped support some of our people with various nonprofit or charity efforts. It's a good thing to do in its own right, but it also gives the company more visibility."
Massaro never knew about social networking until she took a trip to volunteer at an orphanage in Africa two years ago. She was out of the office for month, but because the company allowed that absence, she was able to bring back with her a passion to learn more about a new skill--and that skill ultimately opened up a new specialty for her and a new discipline for the firm.
In times like these, we're prone to slip into survival mode and even believe we don't deserve happiness at work. Rubin says, "You can be grateful for what you have and still be searching for happiness. They are not mutually exclusive. You're not going to make other people unhappier by making yourself happy. In fact, quite the opposite."