how to be happier at work

How happy you are with your job can have a significant impact on the amount of happiness in your life overall. And yet for some people, work is a major source of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. If that’s true for you, it might be because you’re in the wrong job. But sometimes you make yourself much happier at work with some fairly straightforward tweaks to your mindset.

Here are five with the biggest payoff.

1. Focus on what you can control, and let go of the things you can’t. This is probably the biggest rule for being happier at work, because so often when something at work is aggravating you – like an annoying co-worker, a bad boss or a nonsensical policy – the natural response is to fixate on the problem.

But if you can’t actually change the thing that’s bothering you, fixating on it can make it even worse. Instead, if you accept that the frustration is part of the package of this particular job and that there’s nothing you can do that will change it, then the question to ask yourself becomes: Knowing that, can you stay in the job and be reasonably happy? Sometimes framing things that way will help you realize that other things about the job (like the pay, the commute or the work itself) make it worth it to put up with the things you find frustrating. And once you accept that, you may find that your quality of life improves because you’re not dwelling on things you can’t change.

On the other hand, if you conclude that you can’t be happy in the job under these conditions, then you know that you need to start taking action to move on – which is much more constructive than sticking around and being miserable.

2. Don’t join in complaint fests. Complaining about work with your co-workers can feel like a bonding experience, and venting can feel like it releases some tension. The problem, though, is that regularly complaining with co-workers often has the effect of making you think more about the problems you’re griping about. That can act as a sort of reinforcement mechanism, where something that originally seemed like a minor irritation now seems like a much bigger problem. That’s bad for your long-term quality of life at work.

3. Find people amusing, not infuriating. When you have to deal with frustrating people, one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is to see them as entertaining rather than enraging. The department admin who refuses to take any request out of order, no matter its actual priority? Talk to her boss about the problem, by all means, but then resolve to find the humor in her extreme rigidity. The colleague who hoards information and gets defensive at any effort to encroach on what he sees as his turf? Reframe him in your head as Gollum from “The Hobbit,” and your blood pressure might stop increasing every time you have to interact with him.

4. Don’t see your boss as your adversary – unless you have real reason to. Sometimes people’s past experiences with authority make them more inclined to see managers in an adversarial way. But if you have a decent boss, she’s not the enemy; she’s someone who’s on the same team as you and working toward the same goals. The exception to this, of course, is if your boss has given you real reason to see her as an adversary – for example, if she routinely undermines you or treats you unfairly. Absent that kind of situation, though, you’ll usually have better quality of life at work if you see your boss as a teammate who happens to have more authority than you do, rather than as an enemy from whom you need to protect yourself.

5. Care about things outside of work. This might sound obvious, but too often people let work take over their lives and their identities. And when work is the biggest thing in your life, you’re going to be pretty unhappy if things at work aren’t going well. If you’re someone who tends to invest heavily in your job, make sure you’re also investing in family, friends, pets, hobbies or anything else that brings you satisfaction outside of your job. Work difficulties can feel a lot more manageable when you don’t feel like your job is your life.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. ali*

    I so needed this right now. For the most part, I love my job. When I started, it was in fact the elusive “dream job”. Years later, different manager, different policies and procedures, it is not what it once was and I am finding myself more unhappy than not. But the things I loved about it in the beginning are still there, so I have been asking myself the questions of “can I live with this?” and “what can I change that will make it better?” rather than “what needs to change by my boss/the company/my coworkers to make it better?”

    1. Fish Microwaver*

      I’m struggling with this now too. My job was a “dream” job that I wanted for quite a while before there was an opening. It was sold as something which would use my experience and skills and that there would be plenty of autonomy and opportunity for growth. Going on 4 years later, it is a nightmare of constant changes that severely limit use of knowledge and skill and intense micromanagement. Nobody understands what they re meant to be doing from one day to the next and even if we did it could change mid stream. I’m looking but I’m at the point of wanting an entire career change.

  2. Guinea Pig*

    I needed this today! And I feel a little silly that i did not figure these tweaks out myself. Thanks Alison! My work is an intense source of frustration and it might take a while for me to reframe it as “entertaining” rather than infuriating… but I’ll start now!
    Sometimes I feel like there is no part of this job that I like anymore, and I know it is not true, but the energy I spend in frustration against disengaged/unmotivated colleagues is sometimes hard to just forget about. Plus if you add the middle school drama and the constant powergrabs by various people it is hard to navigate at time. I’ll just be a spectator to the madness! The Office, real-life edition!

  3. Jan Levinson*

    5. Care about things outside of work.

    I love this one. I used to I let work take over my entire life. When I wasn’t at work, I was constantly worrying about work. I lost sleep over it. I lost sight of who I was outside of work. Now, I leave any worries at the office. As soon I walk through that exit door, I make a mental note that work talk/thoughts are off-limits. I like to make the most of my time outside of the office – spending time with my husband, walking the dog, cooking, catching up on Netflix, etc. A changed mindset has changed my life.

    1. Banana Sandwich*

      This exactly. I was also stuck in a rut, constantly thinking about work and putting off personal things in the name of how busy work was. Once I decided to focus on things outside of work and making my job less of a personal reflection of who I was, I have been so much happier!

      I’m proud to say we will FINALLY soon be adopting our first child thanks to this change in thinking! YAY!

    2. Lemon Zinger*

      I’m a chronic over-thinker and #5 was really important for me to read. I’m still training myself to not think about work when I’m at home. A mental redirection every now and then is helpful. Keeping my hours full of non-work activities is crucial!

    3. Outside Earthling*

      That’s great. I’m really interested in how you managed to make this shift in mindset. Do you have any tips you could share?

      1. Bethlam*

        Do something that specifically tells you, “Work is done.” Play a certain song when you get in the car; stop at the gym on the way home; change out of your work clothes into “home activity” clothes the minute you get in the door; take a quick walk. Just do something specific that helps you define, “I am not at work and not going to think about work.”

        For various things, I also find that positive affirmations work. (Although I’m still trying to find one that will help me to become more of a morning person.)

      2. MS-DOS EFX*

        Biking or walking home is one of my favorite ways to clear work from my mind/body/soul.

    4. MS-DOS EFX*


      The more stressful, disappointing, and frustrating my work life gets, the more fully I appreciate coming home to a wonderful spouse, a good meal, and two cats.

  4. Jesmlet*

    #3. Find people amusing, not irritating
    This is the best piece of advice I got a while back that I now give everyone, not just for work but for daily life. It makes it so much easier to see things rationally and I’m sure my blood pressure thanks me for it. Be amused by people’s annoying quirks, feel sorry for their being stuck in negative patterns or pessimistic outlooks, don’t let it bring you down.

    1. Seal*

      #3 really spoke to me as well. While I generally try to find the humor in most situations, I still tend to let certain people and situations get under my skin. Reminding myself to step back and find the funny is always good advice and I’ve often found that the people and situations that are most infuriating can also be the most laughably ridiculous.

    2. SystemsLady*

      This truly is the trick. One of our clients is managed by somebody who is incompetent, terribly “work political” in the bad way, and generally, a cartoon villain.

      Viewing him as that cartoon villain and pitying him for his inevitable, drama-filled departure is very, very therapeutic.

    3. stopcomplaining*

      This is usually my reaction when my boss and coworkers complain non stop (like a few hours a day at least) about their significant others, children, and jobs.

  5. Argh!*

    #1 I’ve been trying to change things at work for almost a year now. The result is that I have learned a lot about my boss & her boss, and how my coworkers view things. They are both unwilling to acknowledge my point of view, and since I have started confiding in a few trusted coworkers I have learned that other people have the same complaints and have experienced the same disappointments.

    So… it’s validating to find out that I’m not the only one, but it’s discouraging to learn that “my” problem with my boss is really my boss’s problem with everybody. Her own insecurities are holding her back from being an excellent manager, and I can’t fix that. What others have done is take a submissive & self-effacing approach, not complain, and just pretend everything is fine. I can’t do that.

    After trying to “manage up” in the sense of asking for what I need from my boss (as opposed to what it usually means, which is sucking up) I have had a little success, but the price is too high. My boss reacts to everything with defensiveness and seems unwilling to learn to have productive two-way conversations. I rarely come away from a conversation feeling like I’ve been heard, let alone respected.

    Fortunately, she feels she can give me degrading evaluation scores & comments without really paying attention to what I do, so I can spend time at work looking for another job.

  6. Sarasaurus*

    Big yes to #2! I have one coworker in particular who can just never be happy with anything or anybody, and it’s so exhausting. Every single day is “can you believe Jane did xyz?” “Bob obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing” “I can’t handle working with Susie,” and on and on and on forever. Of course, she never does anything wrong and everything is somebody else’s fault. She’s been talking about finding another job since I started 3 years ago, and I’m almost to the point of yelling “THEN GO FIND ONE” next time she brings it up. Ugh.

  7. Djuna*

    These are all great tips.
    One of my co-workers was getting stressed out by new software that was glitchy and I gave her my version of #1 – “become the human shrug emoji”. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself when stuff breaks and it’s not in your power to fix it. Do your due diligence, in terms of reporting the outage/bug/whatever, with the proper level of urgency, then let the people who can fix it take over everything (including stressing out about it).

    Dovetails nicely with #2 and #3 as well. If you don’t let things get to you, you don’t need to vent about them, and you can see the humor in them more easily.

  8. AthenaC*

    “3. Find people amusing, not infuriating.”

    Oh my word – yes. Especially in public accounting! I have run into so, SO many personalities, both internally at my employer and external at my clients. And if they are a client or otherwise higher than me on the totem pole, I just have to flex. Much more fun to think about how I’m going to spin the bizarre story to tell friends and family later on.

  9. The RO-Cat*

    Adding to that:
    6. Try to maximize the amount of time you dedicate to the parts of the work you like; failing that, maximize the amount of pleasure.
    7. Clear what you want from this job, as opposed to what the company wants from you. Morph the unpleasant bits into the price you pay for the good ones. This way there’s more clarity regarding the personal ROI
    8. For the boring parts of the job, find or create a competition to spice things up.
    9. Hog as much of each of the following as you can: autonomy (deliver the expected results, but get there on your own way), mastery (get better at those parts that you like or are desirable for the future) and transcendental purpose (imagine how exactly what you do contributes to a greater good that you cherish). These aren’t mine, see Daniel Pink on the TED website.
    10. Reward yourself for a job well done – others rarely do that.
    11. Make friends at work. No, really: make friends at work. Work-friends are good, friend-friends are better.

    And, above all, do everything with measure and look for the equilibrium point that suits you best.

    1. turquoisecow*

      Be careful with number 11. Depending on your environment, people who you are your friends can turn out to be only fair-weather friends.

      Also, sometimes people you think are your good friends stop being your friends when one or both of you leaves the company. It’s easy to think they’re more serious friends than that.

      Otherwise, I agree with these. :)

  10. Kit*

    I had the work day from hell!! BUT… I feel fine! This day would have wrecked me for a week six months ago, so I feel like I have really grown!

  11. Miss Nomer*

    I really like these tips. This is my first job out of college (I’ve been here about a year) and I’ve really struggled to be happy at my job. While I think some things here are a bit egregious, it’s SO helpful to have some strategies for minor annoyances that just compound until I’m losing my mind. Thank you!

  12. Ask a Libertarian*

    “The problem, though, is that regularly complaining with co-workers often has the effect of making you think more about the problems you’re griping about”

    It might even make you band together, giving you some level of collective bargaining power against your employer that you might use to improve pay and conditions! A surefire road to misery.

    1. fond_of_jam*

      Do you read this site much? Wherever possible, Alison advises people to communicate and work together to try to solve problems. There’s a big difference between collective action and griping in the break room, and the latter doesn’t automatically lead to the former.

  13. MS-DOS EFX*

    “4. Don’t see your boss as your adversary”

    I’m struggling with this one a lot right now, largely because I am finding out that my boss might BE my adversary even though she has done such a good job of not appearing to be. She usually likes to try and act super friendly and casual, but I have seen from her interactions with others inside and outside our organization that she is also an expert manipulator and often uses that “super friendly and casual” guise as a tool. It has also gotten back to me through the grapevine that she has told outright lies to my and my teammates’ faces.

    I try to act as if I haven’t noticed and don’t know any of the things I know, but that makes it challenging to stay vigilant and not allow myself to be manipulated into taking a side in a work feud without realizing it, or agreeing to responsibilities or titles that I don’t want, or trusting her with information that she will later use to undermine me. It really amplifies the stress I already feel at work.

    These are all excellent suggestions, though. #5 has been keeping me emotionally stable for a good year or so now.

  14. Laura*

    #5 is so hard for me.
    I feel like when I am not working at work I am working at home. Housework, small children, husband with physically disability etc. I really don’t know how to add things into my life when I literally never get a chance to catch my breath. It might be easier with friends or family, or if I wasn’t so isolated with no transportation. I am honestly unsure how to get out of this situation as I feel like I am dying. Of course I love my family, but the time I have to spend with them seems to always be characterized by either a to do list, or craving personal time and being thwarted.

    Meh, personal problems.

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