How to Be Happier at Work
In these trying times, author Beverly Jones shares smart strategies for workers feeling stuck, bored or unfulfilled
Ask Beverly Jones, author of the valuable new book, "Find Your Happy at Work," to describe a time when she was happiest at work and Jones instantly smiles. It was, she says, when she was a grad student at Ohio University working as a paid assistant to its president and researching ways for more equal opportunity on campus for women.
"In those days, women couldn't take some courses, like engineering," Jones, now a Washington, D.C.-based executive career coach, recalled. "Many graduate programs didn't accept women. It was something I cared totally about. I had absolutely no idea how to go about it, so I had to make it up every day, but it was one of the most intensely enjoyable periods of my life."
The reason, says Jones (one of my go-to career experts, fellow Labrador retriever fan and longtime friend), is that "creating something and making a difference is a great strategy to go to if everything is feeling dull at work."
The Secret to Happiness at Work
But there's more to it. "A secret to success, and ultimately happiness at work, is often being comfortable with your own discomfort," Jones says. "I'm a naturally cautious person, and I've learned to ask myself: 'Am I afraid because this is foolish and dangerous or am I afraid because it's an opportunity and I've got to push forward through the discomfort?'"
"I know people at a certain age if you use the word 'networking' freak out and they think, 'Look, I don't have time to see the friends I have now.'"
In "Find Your Happy at Work," whose subtitle is "50 Ways to Get Unstuck, Move Past Boredom and Discover Fulfillment," Jones has tapped into a subject that many workers, me included, have been grappling with since the pandemic began. We're stressed, a little nervous about the future of our work and perhaps a little burned out.
I recently visited with Jones to learn about her refreshing and timely happiness insights in a free-ranging conversation that hit on some of the major themes of her latest book.
"Some of the people who have had the biggest struggles [lately] seem to me to be rising to the occasion and finding meaning in their work," Jones says. "You can have a kind of joy and meaning even in a difficult job, like working in a hospital emergency room or struggling to help people who are going through a mental or health crisis. It's not a fun, giggly, kind of happy. It's a sense that life matters and time is going fast, and it feels good."
Jones discovered through researching her book, as well as from her bi-weekly "Jazzed About Work" podcast on NPR.org and sessions with clients during COVID-19 "that there is a shared sense that work should be meaningful, and lifestyles should be healthy," she says. "There's is a new sense that we deserve to have a rewarding work life which meshes nicely with the rest of our lives — especially for people in their fifties and beyond."
One Way to Get Unstuck at Work
One essential way to get unstuck in your work, Jones notes: building new relationships with interesting people — whether or not they're connected to your job. "These human connections can bring energy into your life, but they also can make you aware of opportunities and inspire you by learning from others," she says.
Of course, Jones is referring to networking, which is a repellent concept to some in their 50s and 60s.
"I know people at a certain age if you use the word 'networking' freak out and they think, 'Look, I don't have time to see the friends I have now,'" she says. "But the reality is that as you get older, having a diverse network that connects you with people of all generations and people in a wide range of activities that perhaps weren't the same as yours is more important than ever."
That people power is "important for happy aging. It is important for anybody that has interest in continuing to work later in life. And it's important for people who really want to retire and are looking to find other paths, even unpaid work in a different field," Jones says.
What's Your Personal Mission Statement?
She also firmly believes that you can find more happiness at work by having a strong, internalized personal mission statement.
"It's easier to love your job if you're working for something that matters more than just a paycheck," Jones says. "Even a tedious job can feel rewarding if you have a good reason for doing the work, like saving to put your kids through college."
Your own mission statement "can be the mission of the organization you're working for and how it aligns with your values or it can be a very personal mission," Jones notes.
Don't get hung up on creating big, bold visions, though. Your personal mission can be as basic as taking a job that will help you hone a particular skill or be more productive or use your expertise fully in your work.
"There's a certain satisfaction in simply getting up and doing your job well and knowing you've had a good day at your tasks," Jones says.
Another of her credos had me humming James Taylor's well-known tune, "You've Got a Friend;" I love this kernel of advice. "Having friends at work can make you happier," Jones says. "Studies show that teams accomplish more when the co-workers show each other respect, gratitude and integrity. Many successful groups develop a culture that feels much like a family, with lots of communication and a sense of belonging."
Granted, that can be harder when you're working remotely. But instead of waiting for an opportunity to connect face-to-face with colleagues, says Jones, make it a point to "touch base routinely with each potential friend that you are building a work friendship with, in the spirit of being helpful. It's also fun to send along articles or mention podcasts you think they might be curious about."
Sometimes, feeling in the dumps about your work stems from boredom and monotony. As I wrote in my book "Love Your Job," when people say they're miserable at work or their boss is difficult, the root of that generally isn't the job itself or even the boss. They're just plain bored.
Beverly Jones' Advice for Boredom
"Boredom is a feeling kind of like thirst," Jones tells me. "When you feel thirst, it's a cue that you need to get a drink of water. Well, when you feel boredom, that's also a cue that you need to do something."
Her advice for malaise? "Learn something new or get some exercise so you feel more energized," Jones advises. "Offer to help a struggling colleague."
Or, Jones says, start a side gig separate from your regular gig.
"It addresses boredom," she notes. "I'm thinking of a lawyer I know who had a little photography thing on the side. He took headshots mainly, but he was constantly learning about photography and brought that new attitude to his law practice, which had gotten very repetitive and dull. He started seeing things in a new way."
"A side gig that you enjoy can make you much more creative and aware in your day job."
Through his photography, Jones notes, the lawyer began meeting new people and thinking about himself in a more positive way. "A side gig that you enjoy can make you much more creative and aware in your day job," says Jones.
Bonus: A side gig can also provide a sense of job security. "It's knowing that no matter what happens, you have another line of business," Jones says. "You have another stream of income or are trying to build a career for the future."
Jones is a fan of Ben Franklin — calling him "America's First Self-Help Guru" in her book — and believes he has some wise counsel for people bored at work, too.
"Franklin teaches us that self-improvement — which means moving closer to the life you want to live and the person you choose to be — requires effort, persistence and the ability to learn from mistakes. But you can do it. We can all choose to live a life closer to our ideal."
Finally, although Jones delivers 50 ways to boost your joy at work in her book, her mantra is: You don't have to do everything at once. "If you just take one little step toward one of your goals every day, but you keep doing it, that makes a difference," she says.