Lockdown has brought a chance for reflection for many of us. Perhaps not as much as we thought – from what I can gather people haven’t wiled away hours in a sunny armchair contemplating the meaning of life. However, we have been given the opportunity to reflect on how life now looks different, and many of us have realised that perhaps, in our standard way of operating, we are not providing ourselves with as many opportunities to be happy as we could.
It’s absolutely unrealistic to think that we could, or should, be happy all the time. Books and films and coaches and self-help approaches and aphorisms which push us in that direction don’t do us any favours at all. But what we can do is craft a working life that increases our chances of feeling happy at work, and reduces our chances of feeling unhappy.
So, what does the evidence say? What can stand us in the best stead of feeling good at work, and allow us to benefit from those positive feelings in other aspects of our life, too?
1. Meaningful relationships make us feel happier
People need people. Social connections and relationships are central to fostering our positive feelings about working. We create the conditions to be happier at work when we like our colleagues and have positive, supportive relationships with them.
When we are involved in decisions about how often we’ll work from home in the future, we should bear that in mind. Will working from home always and permanently still create ways to fulfill your social needs? It’s harder, but not impossible, for many of us to fulfill those needs online. Zoom fatigue appears to be a real thing, for example, caused in part by the slight time delay that we as humans are not programmed to have to deal with in our day to day interactions. If you’re not having face to face interaction with your colleagues and you think you will miss that, think about how you’ll replace it? Through one day a week in the office? Through Zooms with colleagues who you seem to gel with really well, even online? Or through relationships with those out of work (a regular lunch date with a neighbour who also works from home every Thursday, for example).
2. Happiness is tied to having a sense of purpose
We need a sense of purpose to feel happy with our work. Being furloughed, or made redundant, or just having less on, has messed with many people’s sense of purpose and underlined how important it is.
What this means in practice is, we need to feel that what we do has meaning – and what counts as meaningful will differ from person to person. I might find compiling the annual reports for a company infinitely tedious where for someone else that is critical work. You might love trying to sell an amazing service to your clients, whereas your partner would much rather spend their day crafting a gorgeous algorithm. It’s the gorgeousness, the amazingness, the criticalness, which would tell me that you are finding purpose in what you do.
Perhaps you’ve been forced to reflect through being quieter, and have realised that you’re in the wrong job. Now mightn’t be an ideal time to start job hunting unless you have to, but in the meantime, can you take on a side gig to see what will reignite your sense of purpose? It may even help you to bring innovation, creativity and a sense of purpose back to your main job which means you can tolerate it, or even thrive in it, in a way you were struggling to do before.
3. Developing potential can bring happiness
A sense of learning and growing can feel very satisfying, and the research says that it positively affects our happiness levels at work. Upskilling increases our sense of being on a journey, and improves our self-esteem. There are a range of ways to approach this if you are thinking about future changes.
At one end of the spectrum, you can embark on a learning journey in something you really enjoy which isn’t necessarily connected with your current role and see where it takes you. In all but the most open-minded firms, you will likely need to find the time and money to do this yourself, but that shouldn’t be a barrier. A good friend of mine recently taught himself to code in the evenings, and two years later, he is a senior manager in a robotics company, using the management experience from his previous role in social work with his new coding skills to fly up the career ladder.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can discuss with your managers as to what skills and knowledge might help you progress in your career and find out if there is any company budget that could pay for what they suggest.
4. Finding flow
Flow, or, more colloquially, ‘being in the zone’, has a significant impact on our mental health and happiness at work. The concept of flow has been popularised by the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow comes when interruptions (from self and others) are minimised and you are absolutely able to focus on the task at hand.
Many of us have recently (re-)discovered the negative consequences of being in a house surrounded by kids, other adults, and trying to get on with work despite lots of distractions. The label of lockdown syndrome we’ve been giving to such inability to concentrate may, in my case, be more to do with finding it hard in the current circumstances to enter a state of flow.
Considering how important flow is to you, and whether the changes you would like to make are going to enable you to achieve it, is critical to happiness. What allows you to enter that state, and stay there? Can you do anything now or in the future to increase the sense of flow that you feel when you are working? If you are planning future changes to your working life, are you creating a situation which will allow you to optimise your flow for the benefit of your future happiness?
5. Focus on you
Remember that happiness comes to each of us in different ways. Some of the points above will feel more important to you than others. There will likely be other factors that affect you besides the ones I’ve mentioned above too. Be brave enough to think about what it is that works for you and then try to find that. And don’t be concerned if, even though you’ve put these mechanisms in place, you’re not happy every moment of every day of the week. That wouldn’t be normal for most of us and the stressing about not being happy all the time may actually make you sadder.
What if everything above sounds great, but you don’t have the mental capacity to focus on all of this right now and you want to make just one meaningful change? Then give your attention to meaning. A deep sense of satisfaction that what you are doing has purpose and meaning when you are working is the keystone of a good working life that ultimately will drive you towards broader happiness, too.