How to Be Happier at Work

A coworker commented today on my perma-cheery demeanor. I’ve worked at this job for almost a year now, and my coworker joined about six months prior to my arrival. She remarked that when she started, she was cheery like me on a daily basis, but since before I started working here, she has been under such constant stress that she wants to start pulling her hair out. (Figuratively. I checked.)

Since our chat, I’ve been pondering why my coworker’s demeanor has plummeted so drastically during her time at our firm, while mine has remained stable. Upon initial speculation, here are the factors which came to mind:

1. We have different bosses. I’m not sure how hairy her workload is day-to-day, but from the days I’ve had a peek at her to-do list, I imagine we’re tasked comparably overall. However, my boss and I get along swimmingly, whereas she, up until recently, has worked for one of our self-admittedly difficult, more litigious attorneys who lacked an interest in forming a functional working relationship with her.

2. We cope differently. I don’t tend to express my stress to my coworkers. I more often find myself retracting inward during times of stress so that I can focus on solving the problem(s) at hand and keeping my emotions manageable. Naturally, I can see how my coworker might think that I’m cheery all the time, as she has rarely, if ever, witnessed me panicking. Also, I tend to address my problems head-on. I consider if they are worth my worry, then I make an active choice for how I’d like to proceed: either I quickly start working to alleviate them, or I don’t allow them to use any more of my mental energy.

3. I choose to not dwell on unpleasant emotions. My daily mood has pleasantly mellowed over the years, and I’m at a mental state now where not much rattles my cage. In my personal life, I tend to avoid stimuli which anger me, and I have learned to appreciate and even enjoy stimuli which sadden me. At work, I regularly experience anxiety, and I occasionally experience annoyance, shame, anger, or any other unpleasantries, but consciously choose to let the feelings go — at least for that moment. As we do in my yoga classes when our minds begin to wander, we acknowledge the thoughts, then release them.

If I think it would be beneficial, I also promise myself to address the feelings later, in a more appropriate and controlled setting, like when I’m home that night. Often, when it comes time to re-address the feelings, they’ve been resolved. Even when they haven’t, though, I’m at least in a safe location where I can spend the time and energy focusing exclusively on my feelings without the burden of other responsibilities.

4. I seek pleasant emotions often. Shy of hammocks, sweatpants, a Slurpee machine, and one of those giant tube gizmos they have at post offices that shoots packing peanuts, my cubicle is full of my favorite workplace comforts. I keep a shawl on hand so that I’m never too cold. I have an entire desk drawer devoted to my favorite junk foods, and I always have at least one box of my favorite pens stashed by my computer. I have an “emergency” stock of popsicles in the office freezer for mid-afternoon sugar breaks. I take my shoes off any time I am at my desk (a hint of office-appropriate nudism), and I sit with my legs folded in lotus position at my chair. Upon the advice of a psychology professor early into my freshman year of college, I also keep a “warm fuzzies” folder for collecting things that have made me smile, like compliments from my boss and “thank you” notes from previously snarky clients.

Additionally, I devote energy to appreciating situational humor, like our client’s wife who stuffed his bags with weights so that they would be heavier when he came to retrieve them from their home; or another client’s husband who gave her a list of behavior requirements he expected her to follow, including acceptable times of day when she could interrupt him for sexual relations; or when my boss slips a pun into an email exchange with a client. Another example: My two closest coworkers within earshot both have ADD. One of those coworkers talks to herself almost constantly, like a human Twitter feed, to keep herself focused. In doing so, her talking is extremely distracting to the other coworker, who then can’t focus. Hello, daily sitcom.

5. I’m so friggin’ glad to be away from my previous job. I came to this job from a small office where my boss treated her employees as burdensome business expenses. Our work was not openly appreciated, in terms of praise or — as my father puts it, the best way to show appreciation in business — financial compensation. I quickly ran out of daily tasks to do in that role, and as soon as I started feeling like quietly weeping every morning, I knew that it was time to leave that firm. Every day, I walk into my current job knowing I made the right decision.

6. This isn’t my career; it’s just a stepping stone role. That’s not to say that I don’t put my everything into doing my job as well as I can each day; I absolutely do. However, I do not fear this job will ever feel like a dead-end for me. This job is an opportunity, first and foremost, for grad school money, but also for personal growth, and for improving a variety of skills that I could market outside of grad school if I’d like to earn part-time income alongside my next degree.

7. My expectations have always been realistic and achievable. I had a comfortable sense of what this job would entail prior to starting, I take my coworkers at face value, and I prefer to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, knowing that we are all looking out for our own best interests first. I don’t know much about my coworker’s expectations, but I suspect they continue to differ from her daily reality, which contributes to her frustration.

8. I take care of myself. I stay home when I’m ill, and I take mental breaks when I need an emotional intermission from whatever is going on around me. I forgive myself for making mistakes, even mistakes I’ve made before. I do what I can to minimize stress, and I choose not to dwell on what I can’t change.

Nothing about my job is life-and-death, and I value my own mental health above and beyond anything I’m dealing with at work.

My coworker is at least ten years older than me, and I sense that she sees part of herself in me — her former self, a happier, more carefree person who liked cracking jokes at work and actually enjoyed her job. Amusingly, I see an older version of myself in her, too, as someone who used to spend too much energy on superficial concerns and struggled to constructively express emotions.

I don’t think my coworker realizes that she has as much choice as she does to regulate her emotions at work. It takes a lot of time to practice that kind of control, but I think she could be much happier if she learned to devote more energy toward investing in herself and her own needs. She’s a wonderful and kind person, and I wish her the very best in her ever-developing journey. She’s certainly worth it.


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