These are the most common happiness traps at work — and how to get out of them

Chasing that raise or promotion might not be the right thing for you.

Chasing that raise or promotion might not be the right thing for you.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For lots of us, the idea that work is work — and isn't meant to be a source of happiness — is something we've internalized over the years, whether it came from society or our parents. But according to the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, "people who are happier at work are more committed to their organization, rise to positions of leadership more rapidly, are more productive and creative, and suffer fewer health problems."

The average person spends one third of his or her life, approximately 90,000 hours, at work. It's only natural that we'd ideally like to enjoy it. But if you think the ticket to happiness is more money or a prestigious title, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. 

In the past, I've negotiated a raise only to realize shortly after that the extra money didn't make up for the lack of opportunity to grow in my role, which had been the real problem all along. According to a 2016 survey by Hays Canada, I'm not alone. Almost half of Canadians are unhappy in their jobs, and one of the key reasons is that they prioritize money over job fit.

But this isn't the only misconception that sets us up to be unsatisfied at work. While there are many valid external reasons for us to hate our jobs — endless office politics, a bad boss, feeling unchallenged or undervalued — our internal mindsets can be just as much of a problem.

In her book How to Be Happy at Work, researcher and consultant Annie McKee discusses some of the most common traps that can get in the way of being happy at work or, as she describes it, experiencing a "deep and abiding enjoyment" of our daily activities.

The good news is that these traps — prioritizing money and ambition, overworking, allowing yourself to be driven by what you think you "should" be doing, and feeling helpless — can be overcome. By including a few simple, expert-vetted exercises into your routine, you can train yourself to recognize when you're getting sucked in and start to climb your way out.

Pay attention to your emotions

To start, the simplest thing we can do is to pay attention to our emotions, says Eve Ekman, director of training at the Greater Good Science Center. "We're so oriented toward outside valuation: being told we're good, feedback and praise," she says. Instead, we should "turn the lens inward, and look at 'When do I feel good?'"

Ekman recommends taking a bit of time at the end of every day to reflect on the emotions you felt and, in particular, the ones you took home with you. Avoiding these emotions, she says, only lets them build up.

She offers this example: If you notice that a colleague makes you feel unworthy, consider whether it's because they're treating you badly or because they're reminding you of never being able to do as well as your parents wanted when you were a kid.

"Happiness is not the absence of negative feelings," says Jennifer Moss, co-founder of Waterloo, Ont.'s Plasticity Labs and a member of the United Nations Global Happiness Council. She points to research that shows experiencing a diverse range of emotions makes for better mental and physical health.

Plasticity Labs works with organizations to survey employees and provide training to improve engagement, culture, well-being and performance, so Moss knows well that, in certain situations, systemic workplace problems can only be fixed through leadership. But she warns that, outside of those situations, if we expect our employer to make us happy or spend our time focused on hating work, we're ultimately short-changing ourselves.

"We need to change the locus of control to lie in the individual," she says.

This requires understanding who you are and what's important to you. For McKee, this is where developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness comes in.

In her book, McKee recommends slowing down and paying attention to your emotions to help you understand what tasks and interactions at work engage you and which ones don't. Then you can start to develop a personal and professional vision about what's important to you, and plan how to seek out opportunities to engage your strengths and interests within and beyond your role at work.

Ask yourself what you really want

You can also ask yourself the hard questions when your motivations and choices go off course.

"In my work, I've met people at all levels — all the way up to the CEO level, who literally have millions in the bank — saying, 'Well, I can't leave yet; I don't have quite enough saved,'" says McKee. These people are trapped by an addiction to money rather than a genuine need for more of it.

In a society that uses education level, income and job title as key measures of success and self-worth, it's not surprising that we can so easily fall prey to their lure. It's these urges that have us taking promotions for the sake of reaching career milestones that we think are expected of us.

Sometimes, we take jobs as stepping stones to other things, and pursuing goals, in general, is not a bad thing, says McKee. But when you find yourself chasing goals without stopping to celebrate achievements, or thinking about if you actually want them, your work can feel empty. She cautions against letting the achievement of goals become your primary driver at the expense of your emotional life or relationships.

This is especially true when we work non-stop. Sometimes we have no choice when it comes to how many hours we put in, but other times we find ourselves overworking as a result of our insecurities and internal narratives about needing to keep up with colleagues, make our contributions visible and meet perceived expectations.

"Those kinds of insecurities that drive us to overwork are detrimental to our psychological well-being, and they can result in us making choices that aren't good for us," says McKee.

"Low self-esteem and low self-worth often get in the way of our better, healthier habits. It's not a lack of information. We all know that staying super late at work, not sleeping well [and] eating terribly is not good for us," says Ekman. But sometimes we need extra support and a bit of training to take care of and value ourselves, she adds.

Rethink your status quo

The Greater Good Science Centre provides free happiness-boosting exercises on their website to help you build gratitude, resilience and optimism, among other things. Ekman suggests finding a friend to do these activities with and to hold you accountable.

For Moss, exercising happiness traits like gratitude, hope, resiliency and self-efficacy —  what McKee calls self-empowerment — is key to building your "psychological fitness." And this self-empowerment is necessary for combatting what McKee sees as the worst of the happiness traps: helplessness.

"Some people truly believe that no matter how hard they try, they can't influence the world around them, change things or get what they want," she writes in her book, adding that as workplaces get more hectic, we tend to feel less in control of our lives. This sense of powerlessness can stop us from taking action and making small changes to reinforce the belief that we can improve our situations.

Importantly, Ekman, Moss and McKee point out that the sense of helplessness we can all experience as a result of negative thinking is very distinct from that which comes from truly abusive and exploitive workplaces. "You cannot just gratitude your way out of those situations," says Moss.

With that aside, for getting out of a rut or negative thought patterns, one strategy that can build up your hope again is reflecting on and writing down examples of challenging situations that you have overcome, says Moss. Another option is setting a within-one-week, or "WOW" goal, which can help you fight procrastination and achieve something you've been putting off to build up your confidence. 

As a group effort, Moss facilitates 21-day gratitude exercises in workplaces, encouraging employees to set up a place in their office where everyone can log something they are grateful for on a daily basis. Expressing gratitude before or after meetings, to book-end potentially stressful situations with positivity, is also an option.

Ekman encourages targeted and specific acts of gratitude, like thanking a colleague who has covered for you. She says the resulting bonds can act as "a natural buffer for stress."

Ultimately, having ambition, working hard and following social norms are not inherently negative. It's when we become fixated on these things that they become problematic. Humans are naturally status-oriented, and our society's emphasis on status is unlikely to change. But, individually, we can begin to be more balanced about our approach to happiness and building self-worth.

"Giving ourselves permission to gain status from our roles in our personal lives, our activities in our personal lives, is a way to fulfill ourselves," says McKee. "We're actually better at work when we're paying attention to ourselves that way."

Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.