Career Psychology is copyright © Dan Joseph Cavicchio. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be republished, reproduced, or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the author. The material in this book is provided solely for informational and educational purposes. It does not substitute for professional counseling or therapy. Information in this book does not represent clinical advice for treatment of psychological disorders.
Increasing Your Happiness at Work: A Deeper Look
The five approaches from the last chapter can be a good foundation to make changes at work. However, there are limitless ways to apply these approaches, and you may need to be very creative in your application.
To expand the presentation of these five techniques, let me share some of the questions I've received about them.
Q: I'm not sure what you mean by doing your work in a way that's enjoyable. What does that look like exactly?
A: The answer to this question will be unique to you. You get to decide what an enjoyable experience of work looks like.
Some people need different pacing in their work—slower pacing for some, but faster and more challenging pacing for others. Some people want to take on fewer projects, or more. There are folks who need tools to help them do their work more effectively. Others want to increase their learning, development, and growth.
Many people these days are finding that remote or hybrid work arrangements help them to feel happier in their work. Or more flexible hours. Or more feedback from their managers. Some people want increased social contact and bonding at work; others want more alone time in order to focus.
There is no single answer to this question. In fact, you might find that you'll need to make a variety of small shifts throughout the day in order to increase your happiness at work. That is why setting an overall goal, and maintaining that goal as a priority, is more important than making one or two modifications.
My recommendation is to begin by asking yourself what changes might help to increase your work enjoyment just for today.
Then try to envision how you could make those changes (or frame requests for those changes) in a way that will benefit your company as well as yourself. Continue that as a day-to-day practice until it becomes a habit.
Q: When you talk about setting work enjoyment as your top priority, it sounds as though you're telling people to slack off. How is that a good thing?
A: Funny enough, some of my best therapy sessions involved telling overworked people that it's OK to slack off a bit!
But slacking off isn't the goal. The goal of this approach is to restore peace to your mind so that you can be a fulfilled, high-contribution team member—and a happy person. That's a success for both you and your company.
I have known people (including some high-level executives) who did the opposite of what I'm recommending. These people prioritized their work goals over their own happiness. In their drive to accomplish those goals, they became exhausted, angry employees who ended up alienating their coworkers.
When these people were let go from their jobs, they were shocked. After all, they had sacrificed everything for their work.
What they didn't realize is that by mis-prioritizing their own happiness, they ended up upsetting everyone around them—and contributing to an unpleasant, high-stress work culture. If they had maintained a daily goal of doing their work in a way that was peaceful and enjoyable, they would have helped both the company and themselves.
Recall that the goal of work enjoyment is coupled with win-win solution finding. If you make it a priority to do your work in an enjoyable way, and then propose win-win arrangements to serve that goal, you'll very likely end up increasing both your happiness and your long-term contributions at your company. This will benefit everyone.
Q: I work in a company that has a really toxic culture. I'm not sure how to improve my happiness in such a negative place. Any suggestions on dealing with a culture like that?
A: You might find it helpful to look at your work culture as a fluid thing. Work cultures aren't fixed and monolithic. Instead, they are like oceans with currents. Cultures are influenced by each employee's attitude, work style, and communication pattern.
Because of that, you may find that it's possible to establish a "micro-culture" in your section of the company.
I'm sure you've seen this before. Leliana in accounting is so kind and friendly that her positivity rubs off on those around her. There's a little warm culture bubble in her part of the company. Isabela in IT is so hostile that her group is continually impacted. She is contributing to a less friendly bubble.
You may be able to create a micro-culture that surrounds you and your work. By establishing new psychological and behavioral patterns, you may be able to generate a new set of trends—a new culture bubble around you.
Does this take effort? It certainly does. It takes determination to establish a new pattern. It also takes persistence to maintain it within a larger context that may not be aligned.
However, if you're able to do that, you'll be adding a new current to the company culture. Your wiser, warmer, kinder consciousness will be a contrast to other people's states of mind.
It's very likely that other people (particularly those who are sensitive and empathetic) will begin to align with your attractive attitudes, and help you to grow the culture bubble that you have established. Perhaps leaders in the company will even begin to follow your example.
That is how many company cultures change: not by a CEO issuing a directive, but by individual people establishing currents of kindness, warmth, and support. I encourage you to try to create your own little culture bubble, and see if it spreads.
Q: I feel guilty when I say no to anything, so I end up doing whatever my boss asks—even if I'm already overwhelmed with work. How do you deal with the fear of letting people down?
A: Let me return to one of the basic principles of cognitive therapy. Our feelings are heavily influenced by our thoughts. Thankfully, we can change our thought patterns so that new feelings can emerge.
If you were my client, I would begin by exploring the underlying thoughts that contribute to your feelings of worry and guilt about letting people down.
Let's imagine, for example, that you ask for help with a work project, rather than simply agreeing to add it to your plate. What thoughts pop up in that scenario?
You might find thoughts like:
"If I ask for help, my boss will lose respect for me. Maybe I'll get fired."
"Things will fall apart if I don't do this myself. Then that will be my fault."
"I should be able to handle whatever I'm asked to do. After all, that's my job."
Thoughts like those will contribute to feelings of worry, guilt, and self-pressure.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, we first identify the old, habitual thoughts as we did above. Then we begin to swap in de-pressuring, self-accepting new thoughts. Thoughts like:
"I have no idea if my boss will lose respect for me if I ask for help. Perhaps she'll actually respect my honesty! And she'd probably prefer that I don't burn out and quit."
"The world isn't on my shoulders. If things start to fall apart because I've hit a limit—well, perhaps we need to hire an additional employee or two. If we encounter challenges, we can try to address them as a team."
"I can only handle so much. My capacity isn't limitless. It's OK to let my supervisor know when I'm hitting my limit."
It will take practice for new thoughts like those to become established. This isn't simply some brief positive thinking. This is a process of retraining the mind to follow a new self-supportive path. You may need to turn your mind down the new road over and over until a new habit is formed.
To strengthen the new habit, I might encourage you to add a behavioral component to the thought repatterning.
For example, I might say, "Can we try an experiment? Tomorrow when your boss asks you to take on some additional work, can you let her know that you're happy to do so—but that your ‘plate is starting to get full' and that you may need help?"
If you're willing to try a behavioral experiment like that, you might find that your old thoughts are immediately triggered. The guilty, worried thoughts and feelings might hit you like a wave. If so, you can practice allowing them to pass through as you remind yourself of your new self-accepting thoughts.
This is a core approach in cognitive behavioral therapy. We identify our old habitual thoughts, and come up with some self-supportive replacements. We then take small action steps to change our patterns. These steps usually trigger the old thoughts, which we practice replacing.
That is the general approach that I practice with my clients. It requires daily effort, but I find that it often produces very positive changes.
Q: All this psychological stuff is fine, but what I really need is more money. Do you have any ideas on how to get a raise?
A: Let me return to the win-win proposal technique to answer this one.
When my counseling clients want to ask for a raise or promotion, I usually encourage them to present their request along with an offer that will benefit the company (and also feel enjoyable to them). By presenting win-win proposals, they increase their chances of success.
For example, these are the type of "pitches" that I rehearse with my clients:
"I've enjoyed being a team lead over the past six months. I'm ready for additional challenges, and I'd like to request a bump up to team manager. I'd be happy to take on some HR functions in that role, and can also manage payroll. Is that something we can discuss?"
"You probably saw that my territory is doing great this past quarter. I'd like to take on a couple of adjacent territories as well. If we do that, I'd be happy to shift some of my salary over to a commission or bonus structure. I'm confident that I can raise sales for the company and also exceed my numbers. How would that feel to you?"
"I think that things have been going really well at the shop. I'd like to ask if we can bump up my hourly pay by a couple dollars. In return, I'd be happy to help out with the website and manage any upcoming events. I'm confident that we can increase sales and save money at the same time. What are your thoughts about that?"
In these examples, the people are not simply asking for a promotion or raise—they're also proposing new responsibilities that are enjoyable to them while benefiting the company.
It's pretty tough for managers to completely ignore friendly, win-win proposals like this. Even if the requested promotion or raise isn't possible, a manager might counter-propose something else. At the least, the process of cooperative solution-finding has been started. There may need to be some creative brainstorming, but the tone is a positive and constructive one.
Compare that to the typical way that many people ask for raises or promotions. Many employees wait patiently for a pay increase, and become increasingly upset that they are not being rewarded. They wait to say anything until they can't take it anymore. Finally, in frustration, they demand a raise.
If the company agrees, they stay. If the company declines their request, they usually start looking for a new job.
There is often a great deal of tension and hurt feelings mixed in with this process. Proactively proposing win-win solutions is much easier on both parties.
Q: I get what you're saying about the "locus of control" being out of whack. But how do you actually make changes to your locus of control?
A: The locus of control is simply a set of beliefs about your relationship to the world. As such, it can be altered with a change of thought.
One signal that your locus of control might be too large is the presence of numerous "should" and "have to" thoughts. If you find that you have thought patterns like the following:
"I have to get these projects done on time."
"I should be able to get this customer to increase his orders."
"I shouldn't have let that client get upset."
"I have to make sure my customers renew."
...then you might want to adjust those thoughts.
I have spent countless hours with my high-achieving clients finding "should," "must," and "have to" beliefs, and replacing them with statements that are less stress-producing.
For example, we can substitute these slight modifications for the thoughts above:
"I'd very much like to get these projects done on time."
"It would be great if this customer increases his orders."
"My goal is for my clients to be happy."
"I'm going to do what I can to encourage my customers to renew."
Those might seem like minor semantic changes, but they can produce an entirely different emotional experience.
If we believe that we should, must, and have to control things that are largely beyond our control, we will generate an enormous amount of stress and pressure. This is what happens when a locus of control is too large.
If we instead state that we would like to, love to, and are aiming for certain results, we're releasing the mind from self-pressuring, overly-controlling perspectives. By making changes to our thought patterns, we adjust the locus of control down in a healthy way.
What if, on the other hand, your locus of control needs to be expanded? If you find that you have thoughts like:
"It's pointless to try to accomplish this."
"The system is stacked against me."
"People never change. Why even bother to try."
"Even if I give it my best, this will end up in failure."
...then you may want to substitute more self-empowering thoughts. By doing that, you expand your locus of control and your perception of what you can impact.
The new thoughts can be realistic and humble. They don't need to be "pie in the sky" positive thinking.
"I don't know if it's pointless to try. Let me experiment with a small step or two."
"Even if the system is stacked, I can try to find little openings to make a difference."
"Some people are open to change. I can try to make an impact where I can."
"I don't know if this will end up in failure. Let's see what happens."
Those replacement thoughts aren't inflated "I can accomplish anything!" affirmations.
Instead, they are humble, realistic reminders that you can attempt changes with an open mind, and see what happens. These are locus-expanding thoughts that will help to promote a greater sense of agency and empowerment.
Your locus may need to be adjusted downward in some areas, and outward in other areas. When you feel pressured, you can look for "should" and "have to" statements, and replace those with thoughts that say, "I'd like to..." and "My aim is..."
In areas where you feel disempowered and hopeless, you can look for self-defeating and future-predicting thoughts. You can swap in new thoughts that say, "I can try to make a few changes with an open mind, and see what happens."
As you introduce both de-pressuring and empowering new beliefs, your locus of control (and the resulting emotions) will adjust.
Q: When I take breaks at work like you described, I tend to lose my focus. It breaks me out of being in the flow. Are you sure that's a good idea?
A: Being in a peaceful flow with your work is a wonderful thing. If you're in that state, by all means, please continue!
However, many people fall into a frenzied "tunnel vision" type of flow at work—and this pattern isn't healthy.
As I stated earlier, our stress circuits are essentially the same as our threat circuits. When you're in a state of stress, you're also in a state of threat. In this mode, even a thirty second break will feel like a danger. It's important not to feed this pattern.
If you are in a genuinely peaceful flow with your work, you will likely find it easy to pause for a few seconds and rest. The peaceful mind will not resist a pause.
If instead you are in a frenzied, threat-based flow, your mind will be highly resistant to pausing. It might say things like:
"I can't stop now! If I stop, I'll lose my place!"
"I don't have time to stop!"
"This has to get done—I have to push through!"
"I can rest when I'm finished. For now, I have to keep going!"
Those are the thoughts that will drive you to exhaustion. Many people spend their entire work days engaged in that type of thinking.
By pausing for a few seconds every hour, you are effectively saying, "No—I am not going to feed this type of thinking anymore. A pause is not a danger. I can take a brief pause and let the stress circuits reset. I am not going to feed these threat-based thoughts anymore."
Thirty seconds is often enough to bridge out of that stress and threat state. Even though the mind might resist the pauses at first, those breaks will restore peace and very likely increase your productivity in the long run.
Through practice, the mind will learn how valuable they are.
Q: I really have no idea how to choose a higher purpose for my work. My job is just a job. Are you supposed to just make something up?
A: Let me return to an idea I presented earlier in this book. We bring meaning to our work. Our work does not bring meaning to us.
We decide what gifts and talents to offer through our work. We also decide why we are giving those gifts and talents. This is why setting a purpose is so important. A chosen purpose not only directs your activities, but also shapes your emotional experience of your work.
I have counseled clients who went into health care, public service, education, and non-profit sectors because they wanted to do something meaningful. But what many of them found was "just another job."
When I work with these clients, I encourage them to select a purpose for their work that aligns with their own values—and then channel their work activities toward serving that purpose. It is that purposeful direction that creates a sense of meaning.
Even if you feel that your job is "just a job," you can choose a purpose for it that brings you fulfillment.
For example, here are some purpose statements that I have heard from people:
My purpose at work is to grow by developing my skills and knowledge.
My purpose at work is to create a positive experience for my direct reports.
My purpose at work is to practice being patient with people.
You can choose any purpose for your work that brings you a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. That chosen purpose will be a lamp that lights your path.
As you set a purpose, and keep it in mind throughout your day, you may find that your experience of your job begins to shift. Or you may instead realize that you can serve your purpose more fully in a different job or career path, and begin to make a change.
Setting a purpose for your work can create a shift in perspective that clarifies your career landscape and guides your steps. I encourage you to choose something personally meaningful, and begin to direct your activities toward that destination.
Let me conclude this chapter by giving a summary of the five techniques I covered. All five of these approaches can be used together.
To begin your day, you can prioritize the goal of doing your work in an enjoyable way. You may need to remind yourself of this goal throughout the day, especially when you feel yourself falling into unhealthy levels of stress. You get to define what enjoyable work means to you.
In order to serve this goal, you can seek win-win solutions throughout your work day. This involves proposing solutions that benefit you and your company, and also inviting ideas for such solutions from others. As you practice finding mutually beneficial arrangements, it's very likely that your work fulfillment will increase.
It may be important to adjust your locus of control so that you don't feel pressured and responsible for outcomes that are beyond your control. Many companies will encourage an overly large locus of control by saying things like, "You can do anything if you try hard enough!" It's important not to let these apparently empowering statements lead to over-pressuring dynamics.
Throughout the day, you can take breaks, preferably every hour. These break times, which might be as little as a few seconds, are designed to let the stress circuits release and reset. If you find it helpful, you can use the "waves" technique to allow your feelings and thoughts to pass through you like a wave.
As you center yourself in the present moment, and give your feelings and thoughts permission to pass through you, you may be able to touch into a place of greater calm and peace. Even a few seconds spent in this place can be restorative.
Perhaps above all else, it can be helpful to set a purpose for your work. No matter what you do in your job, you can dedicate your work to serving a mission that aligns with your values. As you choose a purpose, and channel your efforts to align with that purpose, you may find that your sense of meaning and fulfillment increases.
Let me now conclude this book with an "action steps" section that contains behavioral stretches, worksheets, lists of careers, business ideas, and other information to support the various chapters in this book.