“My grandfather used to call me Chris-O. And he’d always say to me, ‘Chris-O, whatever you do, be happy in your work.'”
What does it mean to be happy in your work?
It’s a sticky, complicated question. Obviously, we work to meet our basic needs—shelter, food, healthcare, that sort of thing. But happiness in your work has to go deeper than that. After all, there are plenty of very wealthy people who are miserable at their jobs.
Is it as simple as finding what you’re passionate about or really good at? That seems unlikely too—how many wildly successful actors and musicians have we heard reveal that underneath the glitz and glamor of their success, they’re flat out miserable?
Happiness in your work is not a simple, easy thing to achieve or define. It’s certainly something that we all want, but where do we even begin to look?
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Happiness is a Warm… Desk?
There are 5,195 people who have the word “happiness” in their official job title on LinkedIn.
There’s Heads of Happiness, Directors of Happiness, Happiness Heroes, Chief Happiness Officers, Heads of People and Happiness, Happiness Managers, Happiness Guides, Happiness Consultants, and (my personal favorite) Happiness Engineers.
We are a nation obsessed with being happy at our jobs, but we often have wildly different ways of trying to achieve that. Some try with relaxed dress codes and flexible hours. Others try with cool offices and ping pong tables. Some stick with great benefits packages and generous vacation policies.
But no matter the offerings, it’s usually described by one all-encompassing word: “Culture.”
“Culture” is the business world’s favorite buzzword. Open any business magazine and you’ll read about great cultures credited with building billion-dollar empires, and toxic cultures blamed for scandal and ruin.
Chris Kelly is a guy who’s thought about being happy at work a lot, but not just his own happiness. Every day, he’s concerned with the happiness of about 350 people who work for him. Myself included.
Chris is the cofounder of Convene, the company that I work for. So, he’s my boss. Actually, he’s basically everyone’s boss around here. And like any good boss, he wants the people that work here to be happy.
“In the old management style, people were expected to mold themselves to the company,” Chris says. “We believe that our role as a company is to allow our employees to be the best version of themselves.”
“When I think of the personal mission for the company, I envision every single person in the team walking through the door of their home and sitting down at the dinner table with their family. And I think of how every single one of our team members would answer the question, ‘How was your day at work?’
“I want everybody in the entire company to be really proud of whatever the answer is.”
What Does “Happy” Really Mean?
Hang on, let’s break this down a bit. What exactly does being “happy in your work” mean?
When I think of what “being happy” looks like, I think of laying out on a warm beach, mojito in hand (with a couple empty glasses next to me, if I’m being honest), with absolutely nothing on my calendar for weeks. But when I think about the jobs I’ve had where I felt happiest, the opposite is true—there’s tons of work to be done, but I can’t get enough of it.
“If we think about happiness big picture, it’s all about experiencing joy, positive emotions, feeling engaged with what you’re doing where time flies by, and then connection with meaning and purpose. All of those things apply to our personal life, and they also apply to our work life.”
That’s Dr. Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and host of “The Psych Show” on YouTube. He says happiness at work isn’t about sunshine and rainbows (or ping pong tables and kombucha on tap, as the case may be), but about feeling a sense of purpose and being constantly challenged.
“Probably one of the greatest things here that’s been shown in research related to work that’s tied to fulfillment and happiness is feeling like your work is tied to something greater—that there’s a great sense of meaning and purpose behind what you’re doing.”
It’s tempting to think that an easy job will make us happy, the opposite is usually true. To be fulfilling, tasks must challenge us just enough to stretch our skills, without being so impossible that we get frustrated. As we gain experience however, we need new challenges to keep us engaged.
“It’s a constantly moving target, because we get better at the skills we’re using, and we need greater challenges,” says Mattu. “It’s kind of like playing chess. If you’re a chess champion playing against me, it’s not going to produce any flow for you because I’m so easy to beat. Similarly, I’m not going to experience any absorption playing a chess master because I’m just so bad at it. Our skill has to meet the challenge of the task.”
“Constant gentle pressure,” that’s Chris Kelly again. “I think about it as like being in water up to somewhere in the space between, like, your nose and your mouth where you could still breathe but not breathe comfortably.”
“The concept of ‘1% better every day’ is about breaking down really big ambitions that can sometimes seem impossible or impractical and realizing that if you chip away at it, just a little bit every single day, then you can go to amazing places. If I were to tell you that I was gonna walk from New York to the tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego, that may seem completely outrageous, and it is, but any able-bodied human being can actually accomplish that.”
That sounds great, but the actual process of building a great culture is more challenging. Chris talks a lot about playing “offense and defense” on culture. Company cultures will form no matter what you do or don’t do, but if you’re not purposeful about building it, you’ll end up with a toxic culture that serves no one.
“The wrong way to build a culture is to assume that you can set the intention, put the poster up on the wall and that it builds itself. Your culture has to be a lens through which you speak every single word. It has to be a filter that every single thing that you do, every action you take, goes through. It can’t be a poster on the wall that you occasionally reference.
“When you set your values in place, you have to be willing to hire and fire 100% based on values, without exception. I can think back to an early time in our company where we had an extremely productive salesperson who at the time accounted for the majority of the company’s revenues. This person was not a cultural fit, because they weren’t setting the rest of our team up for success. And at the time, making that call to part ways with that person who we personally cared a lot about was difficult especially because of the dollar figures that were involved. It was half the company’s revenue. It was a scary choice to make. But what we realized was that tolerating that behavior would be a cancer that, if it didn’t kill us today, it would be certain to kill us in the future.
“Culture is measured not by what you do or say alone, but it’s also largely measured by what you tolerate.”
Work Hard, Rest Hard
Alright, so hard work (or rather, just-hard-enough work) and a sense of meaning makes for happy work. But what about when that hard work starts to take a toll on our minds and bodies?
Patricia Karpas is a Mindfulness practitioner and founder of the Meditation Studio app. In her practice, she’s helped people use meditation techniques to deal with the ups and downs of daily life.
“Once you learn these tools, they help you to become more self-aware,” says Karpas. “And when you’re more self-aware you have the ability to pause before you react, and you can respond to a situation much more thoughtfully.”
Mindfulness is pretty buzzy right now, but it’s easy to see why. With high demands on workers and a stressful, noisy world, the pressure can be overwhelming. Mindfulness isn’t any sort of magic solution—rather it’s just a set of practices that can help train your brain to be present in the moment. That might sound easy… until you actually try it.
Go ahead, right now. Try to think of nothing for 5 whole minutes. See how long you last before you’re thinking about when you’re going to get laundry done and how to passive aggressively respond to that email.
There are countless resources and apps available to help newbies to Mindfulness get started—Patricia started her own called Meditation Studio, it’s pretty great. Her hope is that she can help people in their daily work lives by giving them the skills they need to “be more focused, grounded, and present in all our situations.”
As someone who’s made it her business to help people be happier in their work, I wanted to know what Patricia has learned from the people who are happiest at their jobs.
“I think the happiest people in their jobs share this quality of bringing all of who they are to the workplace,” says Patricia. “If you’re only bringing one part of yourself to the workplace, but you’re leaving home your compassion for other people and your empathy and you’re sitting at your desk doing analytics all day when that’s just 10% of what you’re capable of doing, I think you’ll ultimately feel very dissatisfied.
“Being happy at work starts with having a job that aligns with your core values.”
A job that aligns with your core values. That raises two very good question: what are your core values, and what are the core values of your employer?
At a certain point, every business has to answer that question.
“Companies need to start thinking about culture when the reach of their founders is no longer enough to cover their entire team. And for us, that was somewhere between 30 and 50 people where, prior to that, we never really needed to state our values, just like the way that your family probably never stood up and said, ‘These are our values,’ but they were always implied.
“But when we reached between 30 and 50 team members, Ryan and I knew that we had to distill the secret sauce and the culture that we had so naturally built. We had to distill that down into something that could be communicated and shared very clearly so that other people would have the framework to make good decisions.”
That’s exactly what Chris and his co-founder, Ryan Simonetti, set out to do.
They came up with GRIT.
“After a lot of back and forth, Ryan and I identified GRIT as being the core value of Convene. We define GRIT as being passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals. And what we love about that is that it captures the two, sometimes they are almost opposing forces, that need to be aligned for long-term success.
“Passion and perseverance captures the ambition and the hustle and the drive, but passion and perseverance and pursuit of long-term goals means that all of that ambition has to be channeled in ways that builds our reputation over time. ”
GRIT is broken down by its four letters to represent four different ways that value gets lived out.
First, there’s Genuine: “Genuine is our commitment to be our best selves, and also to respect the diversity and individuality of others on our team.”
Relentless: “Being 1% better every single day. It’s about setting huge goals, putting one foot in front of the other and you continue until you reach that goal.”
Integrity: “To do the right thing. Every day, when I was walking out of the door of my house, my mom would tell me, ‘Do the right thing.’ She didn’t tell me, ‘Don’t do the wrong thing, don’t screw up,’ but she empowered me to make good decisions.”
And Teamwork: “Teamwork is succeeding and failing together. It’s understanding that all of our lives are deeply connected, not only professionally, but in the broader spectrum of our lives.”
The cynic might write company culture and values off as hot air—a self-serving attempt by executives to hide selfish motives. Or even as a waste of time and resources for a business—is it really the responsibility of an employer to make people feel fulfilled?
“Sometimes people ask me why culture is so important to us. Frankly, I just wouldn’t know how to motivate a team by treating people poorly. I wouldn’t know how to create a successful company with team members that weren’t happy or proud of their work. Some people think that investing in culture is an upside or some type of benefit, but for me, I just wouldn’t know what the alternative could be.”