5 Keys to Finding the Joy (again) in Work

Are you in touch with the spark of joy that propels your career?

Many of us aren’t. And, especially during fluctuating COVID-19-related working arrangements, that makes perfect sense. But even in the best of times, administrivia and distractions can pull us away from the work we know we are meant to be doing.

Answering email is not the work you are meant to be doing. Neither is writing reports.

The work you are meant to be doing is work that fulfills you. You look forward to it. I’m not suggesting this is “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but “do what you love and you will be happier than you would be doing something that you actively dislike!” Happiness at work needs to involve some element of work that fills your cup.

Have you lost sight of fulfilling work, work that makes you happy? If you have, PERMA is here to help you find your spark of joy again.

  1. (P)ositive emotions: Holding on to positive emotions is, paradoxically, difficult to do. For evolutionary reasons (hi there, poisonous snake!), our brains are hard-wired to remember and hold on to negative inputs and emotions more firmly than positive inputs and emotions. This means that if we want to find more happiness in our life and work, we have to go LOOK for it and, when we find it, HOLD ON. Whether you do this through a daily gratitude journal or list, through mindfulness practices, or with a daily dinner-time check-in with your family about all the great things that happened in your day, it is important to accentuate the positive. We need at least THREE positive inputs to equal the weight of ONE negative input in our day. If you aim for a 5:1 positive thought and feeling ratio, you’re on your way to a happiness boost.
  2. (E)ngagement: Being really engaged with your work is another key element to deep satisfaction and joy. Being engaged in and with your work means not multi-tasking. Focus on the task in front of you, give it your deep thought and attention, invite yourself to get into FLOW state with your work. To do this, you might need to deliberately avoid distractions by using a focus timer. Whether you rely on the Pomodoro technique or Write or Die or a virtual accountability partner, giving yourself at least 30 minutes at a stretch of uninterrupted time to do work that engages your heart and soul can move your happiness needle up a notch!
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Image of green saucer with coffeee cup, lined notebook paper and fountain pen on desk.
  1. (R)elationships: I’m a humanities academic by training. When I was a professor, most of creating really great work involved me, a stack of books, a computer, and a quiet room. But the joy I got from doing that work came from the fun of talking about it, teaching it, sharing it, and comparing it with others around me. Even solo work benefits from relationships. And while I am writing this, most of us are back in some version of lockdown for the second wave of COVID-19 infections, and are again feeling the burden of not being able to meet at the whiteboard or the water cooler to invest in our work relationships. It makes sense to invest less in keeping virtual water cooler relationships humming along and put more time and energy into keeping your most meaningful professional relationships vibrant. Now is the time for virtual coffee chats or cocktail hours, small-scale seminars and presentations, and ad-hoc things that keep your connection to meaningful work with valued colleagues alive.
  2. (M)eaning: At the core of finding (or re-discovering) the spark of joy in your work is the assumption that the work you do has meaning for you — that you see the significance or relevance of this work as bigger than or beyond your individual self. We might call this having a calling. But even if you don’t want to use language that lofty for your work, experiencing our work as being connected to something greater increases our sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. Measuring “meaning” can be subjective, of course, and that is its beauty. My dream is that we all see how what we do contributes to the greater good. It is up to me to make that connection for myself; someone else can’t make it for me and I can’t make it for them. Find the greater significance in your work!
  3. (A)chievement: Finding happiness in your work also involves your individual sense of achievement. This doesn’t necessarily mean the big contract or the huge raise or new client or well-placed publication, but achievement that reaches your own standards. When we find an elegant solution to a thorny problem, we experience a sense of achievement. When we win over a skeptic with solid logic and kindness, we experience achievement. If all of your work is merely in the service of someone else’s achievement and not your own, you’ll look in vain for your spark of joy. Know what your own version of accomplishment looks like means that you can celebrate small wins frequently, and find more happiness!

The PERMA model comes from Martin Seligman’s book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (2011). It has since been used to measure and discuss the relative happiness of post-secondary students, teachers, working environments in multiple countries, and countless individual lives. Try it out and let me know what you think!

Written by

Academic Leadership coach working with emotional intelligence & positive psychology to help scholars and administrators flourish.

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