Most people I meet assume that if anyone on the planet is happy at work, I am. (I co-founded and run a company called Happier). I make a living by helping other people find more joy in their lives. I must feel happy all the time!
But: I don’t.
To be happier at work, I’ve had to become intentional about it. Like working out or eating healthy, being happier is something you have to choose to work on. It’s a skill that takes practice. A growing body of research reveals that there are simple, concrete things you can do to help you feel more positive at work—and they don’t require huge changes.
1. Start the day on a good note
How you feel in the morning affects how you feel at work for the rest of the day. In one University of Pennsylvania study, researchers analyzed the moods and performance of customer service representatives. Those who were in a good mood in the morning were more productive during the day and reported having more positive interactions with customers.
So make it a point to do something in the morning that makes you feel good. Take a few minutes to savor your morning coffee (or tea or hot chocolate or whatever you like to drink before the workday starts). This means actually pausing to enjoy it, not gulping it down as you rush to your desk. And get some fresh air. Research shows that spending just 20 minutes outside boosts happiness and feelings of well-being.
2. Make fewer decisions
Decision fatigue is real. Each choice you make depletes your cognitive resources, making future decisions more difficult. This can quickly exhaust you and make you feel run down. So put some parts of your day on autopilot. Eat the same thing for lunch or breakfast for a week, and then change it up, for example. (Steve Jobs famously said that he wore the same black turtleneck daily so that he wouldn’t spend energy deciding what to wear.)
Before you weigh in on something at work, ask yourself if 1) it’s high impact and 2) you have a strong opinion about it. If you say “no” to both, then this might be a great opportunity to not weigh in on a decision.
3. Help a colleague
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that people in their mid-30s who had earlier rated helping others at work as important reported feeling happier when asked—three decades later.
Helping your co-workers seems to create a virtuous cycle; according to another study, happier workers help their colleagues 33 percent more than those who aren’t happy. You don’t have to do anything huge or heroic. Grab your colleague’s favorite beverage when you get your coffee. Ask if they need help on a project. Offer to do something simple, like type up notes after a meeting. The tougher part is making this a regular part of your day instead of something you do only once in a while. One simple way to do this is to put a reminder on your calendar. It may sound cheesy, but you might be surprised at how effective this small habit can become.
4. Make progress and acknowledge it
One of the best books I’ve read about being happier at work is called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. One of the most powerful causes of positive employee morale and happiness at work, the authors found, was feeling like you’re moving forward and making meaningful progress.
Try this: Before you start your workday, write down three small things you will get done. Do them, preferably before you even open your email or take a phone call. Cross them off your list. At the end of the day, go back, look at your list, and acknowledge that you made progress. If you have a huge project ahead of you, it’s hard to feel like you’re making progress unless you break it up into smaller parts. On some days, those parts may have to be tiny. When I sat down to write this article, I only had time to write the title before having to run and take care of something family-related. The next day when I opened the document, instead of feeling bad for not having gotten more done, I felt great that I’d made a start and had a good title in place.
5. End your workday with a simple gratitude pause
Our brains are better at remembering bad news than good news. One study found that the negative impact of setbacks at work was three times as powerful as the positive impact of making progress. But you can train your brain to fight your natural negativity bias (and better remember the positive things). Think of something you appreciate about your day and write it down. Many studies have shown that when people do this regularly, they report feeling more optimistic and better about their lives overall.
Since you’re likely busy, create a simple gratitude ritual at the end of your day. To make this a habit, connect it to something you already do. For example, I think of something good that happened during the day before I turn my key in the ignition as I start my commute home. If you share something positive about your day with someone else, even better. Research shows that discussing positive experiences with others enhances how good you feel about them.
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