Here’s a pop quiz for anyone who’s miserable at work. Which action has the biggest chance of improving your happiness? (A) Getting a promotion, (B) seeing your professional nemesis move to the Mongolia office, (C) focusing on the positive aspects of your job and trying to ignore the negative or (D) quitting in a fit of anger and landing your dream job elsewhere?
Sorry, says Srikumar Rao, the author of Happiness at Work. The answer is none of the above. To achieve greater happiness on the job, you don’t need your boss to stop calling you at night. You don’t need to make more money. You don’t need to follow your dream of being a sommelier, or running a B&B in Vermont.
“The exact attributes of what you are looking for do not exist in any job,” says Rao, who taught “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” one of the most sought after courses at Columbia Business School.
He believes that the single biggest obstacle to workplace happiness is the belief that we are prisoners of circumstance, powerless before the things that happen to us. To change your job, he says, you must change the way you think about it. “We create our own experience,” he insists. He relies heavily on Eastern spirituality and draws from many wisdom traditions. “The knowledge that we are responsible for living the life we have is our most powerful tool.”
Rather than encourage people to focus on “positive thinking,” Rao wants to banish the whole notion of good and bad events. “‘When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade’ assumes that you have been given a lemon and that a lemon is bad for you,” he says. “I’m saying, first of all, if you’ve been given a lemon, is that a bad thing? You can train yourself to say, ‘OK, this happened,’ rather than label it as bad.” If you think of events that occurred 10 years ago and seemed bad at the time, he says, you’ll realize that many of those events led to something positive. He recalls a former student who was fired from his job and received a healthy severance deal. Six months later the company ran into trouble and all the remaining staffers lost their jobs without receiving a dime. The fired employee actually came out ahead.
Rao believes that in order to be happy in the workplace, you need to move from personal ambition to “greater vision” ambition. “Personal ambition is ‘I want to be CEO,’” he says. “Greater vision ambition is, ‘I want to lead this company so that people want to work here.’” He says that ambition hinders happiness as long as people employ an “if/then” model: If I get the promotion, then I will be happy. Rao says that a healthier and happier perspective is to think “I have a grand vision and I will try my best to make it work. If I succeed, wonderful. If not, wonderful. My purpose is to give it the best I’ve got.’”
If happiness comes only from within, then how can you tell if you really are in a legitimately bad situation, as opposed just needing to reframe the way you look at it? Rao says it’s better to make a change from a positive place than from a point of anger. “You should make a change from the place of being grateful for your experience but ready to make a change and continue to grow.”
Even in corporate America, where so much of work is every man for him or herself, Rao advocates inhabiting an “other-centered universe.” If the nice guy gets passed over for a promotion, he still may succeed in less tangible ways or land an even better job down the road. “They may rise later in the shootout,” says Rao. “I’m challenging the assumption that you need to be a dog-eat-dog person to survive in a corporate environment.”
To achieve greater happiness at work, you don’t need your boss to stop calling you at night. You don’t need to make more money. You don’t need to follow your dream of being a sommelier, or running a B&B in Vermont. So says Srikumar Rao, the author of Happiness at Work. The biggest obstacle to happiness is simply your belief that you’re the prisoner of circumstance, powerless before the things that happen to you, he says. “We create our own experience,” he adds. Here are 10 steps to happiness at work, drawn from his recommendations.
Avoid “good” and “bad” labels
When something bad happens, don’t beat yourself up, says Rao. Instead, when you make an error, be aware of it without passing judgment. “Do what you have to do, but don’t surrender your calmness and sense of peace.”
Practice “extreme resilience”
Rao defines “extreme resilience” as the ability to recover fast from adversity. “You spend much time in needless, fruitless self-recrimination and blaming others,” he writes. “You go on pointless guilt trips and make excuses that you know are fatuous. If you’re resilient, you recover and go on to do great things.” (He also says that if you fully take his advice to avoid “bad thing” labels, you don’t have to practice resilience at all.)
Let go of grudges
Rao says that a key to being happy at work is to let go of grudges. “Consciously drop the past,” he writes. “It’s hard, but with practice you will get the hang of it.”
Don’t waste time being jealous
“When you’re jealous you’re saying that the universe is limited and there’s not enough success in it for me,” says Rao. “Instead, be happy, because whatever happened to him will happen to you in your current job or at another company.”
Find passion in you, not in your job
Sure, you can fantasize about a dream job that pays you well and allows you to do some kind of social good, work with brilliant and likable colleagues and still be home in time for dinner. But Rao warns against searching for that perfect position, or even believing that it exists. Instead, he advocates changing how you think about your current situation. For example, instead of thinking of yourself as a human resources manager at a bank, identify yourself as someone who helps other bank employees provide for their families, take advantage of their benefits and save for the future.
Picture yourself 10 years ago and 10 years from now
“Most problems that kept you awake ten years ago have disappeared,” says Rao. “Much of what troubles you today will also vanish. Realizing this truth will help you gain perspective.”
Banish the “if/then” model of happiness
Rao says that many of us rely on a flawed “if/then” model for happiness. If we become CEO, then we’ll be happy. If we make a six-figure salary, then we’ll be happy. “There is nothing that you have to get, do or be in order to be happy,” he writes.
Invest in the process, not the outcome
“Outcomes are totally beyond your control,” Rao writes. You’ll set yourself up for disappointment if you focus too much on what you hope to achieve rather than how you plan to get there.
Think about other people
Even in corporate America, where so much of work is every man for him or herself, Rao advocates inhabiting an “other-centered universe.” If the nice guy gets passed over for a promotion, he may still succeed in less tangible ways. “He may rise later in the shootout,” Rao says. “I’m challenging the assumption that you need to be a dog-eat-dog person to survive in a corporate environment.”
Swap multitasking for mindfulness
Rao thinks that multitasking gets in the way of happiness. “Multitasking simply means that you do many things badly and take much more time at it,” he writes. He recommends instead working on tasks for 20-minute intervals that you gradually increase to two-hour spans. Turn off any electronic gadgets that can be a distraction. He claims that with practice, you’ll be able to accomplish much more and with less effort.