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Three strategies for being happier at work or school

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Are you like the guy in the commercial who has a parrot who repeats “Not another day.” “Can’t take this.”? If you don’t like your job, or school, or whatever you spend most of your day doing, there are several actions you can take other than complaining.

Making a big change

One possibility is to find a new job. This may take courage. Also, if you’re considering a different kind of work (or even a different work environment), it might be better to try out your new idea first by getting some experience with that new kind of work through volunteering, or by getting a part-time job without quitting your old job. If nothing along these lines is practical, find out whatever you can about the new work situation first before taking the leap. You don’t want to find out the hard way that the new situation is even worse!

Making a small change

What if it’s not a reasonable option to change jobs, or you really don’t want to for some reason? In that case you might look for ways you can transform your work situation so it gives you more satisfaction. People are happier in their work if they can be fully engaged, if they’re using their personal strengths, and if they feel like they’re making a contribution. There may be some changes you can make – or request to have made – that allow you to do these things more. If you’re bored, if you’re not able to use your abilities very fully, try taking on something more challenging, either by requesting it or by just voluntarily doing it even if you don’t have to. You may find that work becomes more fulfilling, and side benefits may include more interesting and higher-paying jobs in the future.

If you can figure out a way to do your work more efficiently and free up some of the time you saved as a result, you might be able to do something else worthwhile, either for your employer or for yourself.

Making an extracurricular change

Another option is to approach your happiness at work from the other side: Doing things outside of work that make you happier may cause some of that positive frame of mind to spill over into your work life. At the very least, it should increase your overall happiness. Just like a good vacation can rejuvenate you, a hobby or some activity you enjoy can put you in a better mood not only when you’re actually doing it, but afterward. Especially if you haven’t figured out a way yet to make your work more satisfying, make room in your life for some activity you really like.

For me the last few years that’s mainly been ballroom dance (broadly defined, including West Coast Swing, Argentine Tango, and especially Latin). It’s great because it’s good exercise (I’m a bit over 6′ tall but I went from a 35″ waist to 32″ and got more toned), there’s a social element that’s even friendlier than in most shared activities, it involves music, encourages creativity, and is a lot of fun. It’s also good for your brain: it facilitates mind-body coordination, cultivates bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and gives your gray matter a workout through learning new dance figures and details of technique. I’ll write more about this in a future post. I’ve even participated during this time in large regional, national, and international DanceSport competitions, working my way up through 6 levels to Pre-champ Latin finalist.

As a teenager I really got into chess (and other strategy games) and played in tournaments. Next I took up guitar, and got good enough to briefly consider a career as a musician (they do have very high job satisfaction). In each case these activities were challenging and rewarding, a learning experience and fun. They allowed me to immerse myself and be fully engaged, experiencing sometimes what psychologists call “flow.”

Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths

Harvard psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar encourages people to begin the process of finding the right work for themselves by asking three crucial questions: What gives me meaning?” “What gives me pleasure?” “What are my strengths?” Looking at the answers and finding areas of overlap may help. He recommends taking more time than just jotting down what comes to mind. In terms of what we find meaningful, for instance, he suggests: “We may need to spend time reflecting, thinking deeply to recall those moments in our lives when we felt a sense of true purpose.”

While this exercise is intended to guide a person in making a major career decision, it can be applied to the all three strategies above for increasing happiness. Extracurricular activities that people find meaningful, for example, can be very rewarding and nourishing.

Planning, strengths, and the magic ratio

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

The presidential candidates agree to the rules of the debate including time limits. A green light turns yellow and then red to let both men know that their time is up for answering that particular question. The candidates do what any reasonable person would expect: they run over the time limit a little bit, then a little more. (Of course.) It’s in their own interest to do so – especially given that they wouldn’t want to be upstaged by the other guy. But the organizers are caught completely off-guard by this predictable situation. It’s as though no one thought about this possibility, and there is no backup plan. The only thing the moderator can come up with is to chide the candidates repeatedly that they had agreed to the rules. Every time he does so he takes time and focus away from the discussion and the issues, which starts to seem a bit absurd after awhile. At one point one of the candidates makes a suggestion for him to raise his hand to get their attention.

Then, as if to highlight the lack of good planning, when the debate ends and the candidates naturally move toward each other to shake hands, the moderator stops them and asks them to move out of the way because he can’t see the teleprompter on the wall behind them.

This actually happened last night at the second presidential debate. It wasn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch.*

How could the organizers have failed to plan for likely outcomes? I really don’t know, but it has the appearance of not thinking things through, which is the point I want to make.

Thought experiment

Albert Einstein used “thought experiments” to think through the ramifications and logical consequences of certain initial conditions. It was a truly outstanding example of rational thought.

Why not try to do something similar in planning? Some things just work better with a good plan. And sometimes it’s worth taking time to think through some of the “what ifs?” It depends on how important something is, of course. But sometimes people spend a lot of time on things that actually matter less (and bring them less happiness and meaning) than other things. Try this: It can be a useful exercise to consider how you’d want to be remembered when you’re gone.

If you already know what needs to be done, lay out the process. Mentally walking through each step can be revealing, even without applying genius-level intellect to problems and solutions.

What if we’re talking about something bigger, and laying out the steps is premature? Don’t underestimate the power of a dream or vision, and its ability to inspire.

The magic ratio

The Appreciative Inquiry approach points out the value of identifying the “positive core” rather than utilizing only criticism, or being dragged down by hopelessness, irony, or negativity. Also, researchers have looked at the optimum ratio of positive to negative in interactions. Beginning with the landmark investigations of psychologist John Gottman, using what he called “the magic ratio” (5:1), Gottman and colleagues were able use analysis of positive to negative interactions in 15-minute conversations to predict divorce 10 years later with 94% accuracy. Psychologist Donald O. Clifton encourages highlighting what coworkers or employees do well instead of what needs improvement, and discovering the benefits of supporting their valuable contributions. But research discovered that when the ratio gets too high, about 13:1, effectiveness declines. That situation was out of touch and unrealistic. So reduce negative feedback, but don’t eliminate it.

A very useful contribution positive psychology might make to certain kinds of business or personal planning is looking at your personal strengths. This could be strengths in relation to your job, or in relation to your role in the personal task you’re planning for. It could be the strengths of those involved in some joint business or personal task. It could even be the strengths of your business or project team as a whole. Playing from your strengths rather than focusing primarily on weaknesses has been shown to work better.

Founder of modern “positive psychology” Martin Seligman says that using our strengths “makes work more fun, transforms a job or a career into a calling, and increases flow.

*If it had been SNL, the absurdity would have been taken much further: the moderator might have been asked to wave both arms over his head, jump up and down, and “do something more to get our attention”; “just throw a few crumpled up pieces of paper,” an eraser (chalk flies on impact from side of head), “try your shoe,” “use this taser” (then: “don’t tase me, bro!”), “here’s a harpoon gun” (“God knows I had worse in Nam”).