You can’t always find happiness in the confines of a 9 to 5 job — but if you can find meaning in what you do, or at least learn to tolerate it, the benefits are endless.
According to Wharton psychologist Adam Grant, employees who understand their work has a meaningful, positive impact on others are not just happier than those who don’t; they’re more productive, too.
Research shows that raises and promotions are more common among people who find their work meaningful. What’s more, the studies found, these workers tend to be more resilient, motivated and harder working than their peers.
In other words, your happiness at work is a key factor in your success.
It’s natural to feel that your work has lost its purpose after three whiplash-inducing years of a global pandemic and unpredictable economy, among other stressors, says Nicholette Leanza, a psychotherapist based in Beachwood, Ohio. But re-kindling it should be a top priority.
According to Leanza, the most successful people follow one rule to stave off burnout and be happier at work: They make every task at work matter, no matter how small or thankless.
“It’s non-negotiable,” she says. “It might seem simple, but if you can enjoy what you do and find meaning in even the small things, that’s the best path to sustainable happiness.”
Here’s how to do it:
The one question you should ‘always’ ask yourself at work
To amp up the meaning in your work, you first need to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Not every task needs to be world-changing — it just needs to be something that benefits you, society or that others appreciate for it to have positive meaning, says Leanza.
Before tackling an item on your work to-do list, “You should always ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this, and what meaning could it have?'” adds Leanza.
In some cases, like when you’re working late to meet a project deadline, that answer might just be to make your boss happy or to keep your job so you can afford your rent.
When you’re slogging through a particularly dull or repetitive task, Leanza recommends visualizing the positive, measurable efforts your work will have. For example: Fielding customer complaints helps retain important clients and advance the business’s profit.
Leanza says you can also think about the skills you’re learning or perfecting, like communication or problem-solving, that can help you carve out a more fulfilling career in the long term.
Find meaning in helping others
If you can’t easily identify the positive, measurable impact of your work, look to your co-workers.
Research has shown that being kind to your boss, colleagues and subordinates boosts feelings of happiness, confidence and optimism at work.
If you want to make your work more meaningful and fulfilling, says Leanza, focus on building positive relationships. “Suddenly, mind-numbing busywork becomes a fulfilling act of service,” she says.
For example: If you volunteer to help your co-worker re-format a spreadsheet, consider how the saved time helps your team impress the client it’s for, or how it lets your co-worker log off sooner and spend time with their family.
“The smallest acts of kindness can make a big difference,” say Leanza. “You never know, one conversation you have, or compliment you give to someone, could be the thing that gets them through the workweek … it’s hard not to feel good about that.”
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