Choices Happy Workers Make

There are a lot of lists on how to be happy. I did a quick Internet search on “how to be happy” and Google provided literally millions of links – just in English. Don’t look for any consistency or universal truths in these lists. They tend to be a philosophical mishmash of religion, self-help, pop psychology, quantum physics and whatever else someone with a Scotch and Prozac cocktail can dream up. Good luck.

Many of these are about work, but identify themselves under HR-friendly terms like “engagement” or “goal alignment” rather than happiness. These usually break down into one of two categories: 1) a list of things companies can do to increase “engagement” in qualitative ways – better support, feedback, career opportunities, etc.; or b) a list of quantitative things companies can do like better wages, health care, office lighting – the type of things you might see on Richard Trumka’s Christmas list.

The problem is that these are all externally driven: what can my company do to make ME happier. What about your individual responsibility for happiness? Is there something YOU can do to be happier at work?

For the past five years I have been studying and researching these issues with Dr. Martin Seligman, the “Father” of positive psychology, and it is very clear that happiness is directly impacted by the choices we make. Happiness lies within us, as Plato and Aristotle knew.

What are some choices you can make to improve your happiness at work?

1. Choose to Use Your Strengths. The research is overwhelming that you are happiest and at your best when you use your strengths and personality in your work. Although it is tough to be choosy in this job market, try to find a job that is a good fit for who you really are, or take assignments that allow you to show your best side – it is the only path to long-term happiness and success.

2. Choose to Think Optimistically. Good things happen to people who approach problems with a realistic but optimistic outlook. This isn’t because of some magical “law of attraction” or self-esteem nonsense, but because optimists are always looking for rational solutions to tough problems, not just bemoaning their fate.

3. Choose to Give, Not Just Take. Studies show that people who express gratitude to others, or give without expecting anything in return, experience much higher levels of well-being than those who don’t. In the workplace, a giving strategy builds long-term success by creating “loyalty” networks throughout an organization, explains Wharton professor Adam Grant in his best-seller “Give and Take.”

4. Choose to Look at the Big Picture. The universe doesn’t revolve around you and your worries. Think people are talking about you? Unless you are Miley Cyrus, they probably aren’t. If your boss doesn’t say “Hi” to you this morning, it isn’t because you screwed something up. She is probably just is distracted. And you know what? If you did screw up, so what? As long as it wasn’t something like accidentally launching a few ICBMs into the Kansas City suburbs, it doesn’t really matter in the long term.

5. Choose to Laugh. Humor is considered by moral philosophers to be a classical virtue, a universal human good. So why do so many workplaces seem like morgues? Lighten up, laugh, chill a bit – it will enhance not just your mood but also those around you. Famed 19th century psychologist William James wrote that a “smile makes a sad mood steal away like a thief in the night.” Try it.

This is enough for one column. Next week I will share with you five more choices you can make to be happy at work.

But until then, stay away from the Scotch and Prozac.