(More) Happy Choices Workers Make

Whether you are happy in your working life is up to YOU — not your boss, the HR department, the engagement task force or the bartender at Pete’s Tavern. This is perhaps the most important lesson the burgeoning science of happiness has taught us.

Happiness, at least to a certain extent, is a matter of choices we make in our everyday life. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Happiness scientists (positive psychologists and behavioral economists, mostly) have studied literally hundreds of thousands of subjects and noticed certain patterns of thinking and behavior that are common in happy people. Most are the result of deliberate choice, even when researchers control for life circumstances.

In my last post, I listed five choices that are common to people happy at work. As promised, here are five more, all distilled from the scientific research — not some Scotch and Prozac cocktail.

1. Choose to sweat the small stuff. What? This is what HAPPY people do? Before you snatch my happiness guru credentials, understand what I am talking about isn’t pessimistic obsessing over future events or rumination over past mistakes. It is about doing the little things right — like showing up on time, drafting typo-free client letters, remembering your assignments and not using the office kitchen to channel your inner Heisenberg. Much unhappiness is caused by stress, and it is hard to be happy at work when you are constantly patching self-inflicted wounds. As famed positive psychologist Roy Baumeister likes to say: “The best way to reduce stress is to quit screwing up.”

2. Choose to pay attention. Stop! Right now. Turn off your your iPad and your cellphone, get off Facebook and F-O-C-U-S on this page. Stop worshiping at the altar of multitasking; all you are doing is encouraging your brain to jump around from unconnected thought to unconnected thought. And you increase your chances of violating Rule No. 1. Think of it like this. If you have to chop a stack of wood, do you mindlessly flail around at the pile with an ax, or chop one log at a time until all are gone? Happy people learn how to pay attention and chop one log at a time.

3. Choose to savor positive emotions. Good things happen all the time. A smile here, a laugh there. Follow Rule No. 2 and pay attention to them. Think about how you feel. A little more energized, expansive, forward looking. Make them last. Savor them, and hold on to them as long as you can. A lot of happy people have the habit of writing down at day’s end the positive emotions they savored during the day. Try it.

4. Choose to be active. The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang reminds us that we are descended from the monkey, not the cow. We are born to keep physically moving, in other words, not stand and graze. For some reason the modern workplace is one of little movement, other than from one loathsome meeting to another, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many people hate their job. Get up during the day, walk around, take some work outside, try to exercise at lunch, do anything you can to keep moving. It will get the blood flowing and give you one of those positive emotional feelings you can savor.

5. Choose a calling, not a job. Yale University researchers who study work patterns have identified certain “orientations,” or psychological motivations, toward work. There are three, according to lead researcher Amy Wrzesniewski: job (money),  career (advancement, power, prestige), and calling (meaning, purpose and fulfillment). Guess which group holds the happiest workers – those fortunate enough to find a calling. Why? When your job is a calling — if you are lucky, you are in such a job now — time flies by. You don’t want to go home. You are happy at work . I know it isn’t easy to find a calling when you are trying to feed a family, but be optimistic — something is out there that is right for you. The calling doesn’t have to be some profound, do-goody, enviro-sort of thing, just something that means something to you.

Maybe you can replace the bartender at Pete’s Tavern.