How we feel at work has much less to do with what we’re doing than we might think. And because of that, changing how we experience a workday is far more in our control than we suspect.
Decades of research points to simple tactics I call joy hacks that allow you to change your day—and, if they become habitual, even your life.
For example, a little over three decades ago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi strapped “beepers” to thousands of subjects. He signalled them at random moments during their day and asked them to report how they felt in that instant.
When he reviewed the data, he discovered something startling. While subjects reported they wished they could spend more time at home and less at work, they actually felt happy more often at work than at home.
At home they were far more likely to feel bored, anxious or disengaged than while at work. And at work they felt focused, proud and engaged much more often (in fact, two to three times more often!) than at home.
It turned out that contrary to what we suppose, how we’re feeling has little to do with our location and more to do with our attention.
Csikszentmihalyi found that when we give full attention to a challenging activity in which we feel a sense of control, we generate feelings of effortless enjoyment—something he called flow.
We can feel that at home or at work. It just so happens that at work we are presented with more situations that combine these elements of flow.
Knowing this suggests a joy hack: next time you’re feeling frazzled or dispirited, do the following: pick a task; shut off all distraction; take a deep breath; then experience it. Pay attention to how it feels to do it.
You’ll be surprised at how even filing out travel expenses can feel different when you choose to connect with what you’re doing.
Five creative and joyful hacks
We naively think that we have to wait for a better boss, a better job, or the end of our workday to experience more positive emotions.
However, our research suggests a number of small things that are completely in your control that can immediately generate positive emotions.
1. Pay attention.
I’m repeating it here to be sure you “paid attention” to the previous reference. Slowing down 10% will make you feel 50% better about almost any experience you have.
Try it when you’re bustling in the airport from one gate to the next. Simply slow down a notch, look around, smile at someone, notice how your body feels, or pay attention to aesthetics of the terminal.
When you get to the next gate, notice how much less stressed you feel and how simply engaging your senses generated a little more joy.
2. Hold a crucial conversation you’ve been procrastinating.
We were just finishing up a study asking people to imagine they had a magic wand—and could say one thing to anyone they wanted with no fear of consequences.
Hundreds of people told us what they would say and to whom they would say it. For example:
- To my Boss: Quit doing illegal things.
- To my Co-worker: You smell like cat urine.
- To my Spouse: It’s time we split up.
- To my Direct Report: Please find another job. Now!
Many of these people had been letting these issues fester for years—and the primary reason they had not opened up was their fear of possible negative consequences.
What they had failed to consider was the certain negative consequences they were already experiencing by not speaking up.
When we face uncomfortable interpersonal concerns, we tend to think only of the risks of speaking up—and never the risks of the status quo.
If you’ve been putting off a crucial conversation, ask yourself, “What price am I paying—and will I continue to pay—for continuing to suffer in silence?” If, as you honestly assess this price, you conclude it is too high—take back some joy by getting it done.
There are a number of small things that are completely in your control that can immediately generate positive outcomes.
3. Do an appreciation audit
Mounds of research show that one of the fastest ways to change your mood and generate joy is to practise gratitude. This works even with really foul moods.
For example, Martin Seligman asked severely depressed people to take a few minutes every day to write down three good things that happened that day—no matter how trivial (“I had no nicks after shaving.”)
In just two weeks, 94% of them reported substantial improvement in their mood.
A great joy hack is to set a five-minute appointment on your calendar to do an appreciation audit.
Think of a gratitude category that is relevant to your day or place: for example, today I was in Wisconsin—so my category was “Five Wisconsin Things I’m Grateful For.”
As a thought from the category comes to you, take a breath, connect with your feeling of gratitude about that item and ponder it for a moment. By the time you get to the fifth item you’ll be in a much different emotional place.
4. Generate ‘çompletion buzz’
Small incomplete tasks generate far more stress than they’re worth. You can create an embarrassingly huge hit of joy by simply making a list of five “easy wins” that have been orbiting your brain but that you have not committed to complete.
Pick five that you can knock out in 15 minutes or less. You’ll get the first stress relief rush when you simply get them out of your head and onto a small piece of paper. Next, make a small tick box next to each.
Finally, take the 15 minutes and get them done. You’ll love the feeling.
5. Help someone
Think of someone in the workplace whose spirit or load you can lift—then do it. Respond to a request for help. Share a website that would be relevant to a problem someone else is trying to solve.
Cover someone’s phone. It doesn’t have to be huge—but the emotional payback will be.
Lara Aknin gave envelopes to passers-by in a Vancouver park.
As they took the envelope, each was asked to rate their happiness and share their phone number. Half got an envelope with money to spend on themselves before 5pm. The other half got money to spend on someone else—also before 5pm.
That evening, Aknin called them and asked them to report how happy they felt. You can see where this is going—right? You guessed it—those who spent on others were happier than those who spent on themselves. Do it now. Give yourself a joy jolt by reaching out and giving a hand.
Bringing it all together
Remember, the big idea here is that we have far more control over our experience of a workday than we suspect. Prove it for yourself. Pick one of the joy hacks above and try it for a week—then let me know how it works for you.