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Scientifically-backed ways to be happy at work

Boost your mood in the workplace for greater life satisfaction overall. Just follow these seven simple steps. 

24 January 2018
5 minute read

Group of colleagues smiling together

Most people spend more continuous time at work than they do just about anywhere else, other than in their beds. Since being busy with earning money takes up so many hours of your day, it makes sense that this should be happy time, but unfortunately, this is not always the case. The good news is that it’s possible to make your work time happier – you just have to turn to science for the solution.


Scientific research says that these seven things will make you happier in the workplace:

1. Start the day well In one study, researchers from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania analysed the moods of call centre agents. It turned out that those people who had “woken up on the right side of the bed” stayed positive all day, while those who started the day in a bad mood struggled to lift themselves from it.

The idea, then, is to make sure that your mood gets a boost first thing in the morning – whatever it is that does that for you. So, whether it’s exercise, a quiet walk in your neighbourhood, reading a chapter of your book, or just enjoying your coffee in the shade of a tree, identify the thing that will set your world to rights, and act on it every morning. Your 3pm self will thank you.

2. Express your gratitude If you are gainfully employed, there are probably a multitude of things in your life to be grateful for. Knowing this in a vague sort of way does nothing for you, but science has proved that expressing gratitude – whether to yourself or others – truly makes you appreciate what you have, and boosts your mood.

So, let your colleagues know you appreciate them, express your satisfaction at the food in the workplace cafeteria, do the “five things to be grateful for” social media exercise, or keep a daily gratitude journal – all of which should make you aware of and thankful for life’s little blessings.

3. Work on your relationships The 75-year-long Harvard Happiness Study showed that the most important contributor to a person’s lifelong happiness is his (the study looked at men) relationships. While life partners and friends were particularly important in the study, work relationships matter as well. This means that it is important to build meaningful relationships on the job – don’t be afraid to let people in or to share information about your own life. Don’t dismiss people you don’t get along with as “just someone at work”, but rather try to find ways to overcome your conflicts.

And counter-intuitive as it might seem, University of Wisconsin-Madison research has shown that helping someone else at work is likely to bring YOU a lot of satisfaction.

4. Develop a sense of purpose and vision of the future Annie McKee, award-winning business book author, wrote an extremely popular research-backed article for the Harvard Business Review outlining what it takes to be happy at work. In it, she identified two things that made people happy at work – a sense of purpose and a vision of the future.

People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in.

“People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in,” she wrote. And, “People want to feel as if their work matters, and that their contributions help to achieve something really important.”

The lesson here is to try to get on board with your company’s vision, and understand your place in achieving it. If that’s not a possibility for you, perhaps it’s time to start looking for work elsewhere.

5. Try to achieve a work-life balance Ran Zilca, the chief data science officer at Happify analysed the data off their app and published the findings in the Harvard Business Review. He revealed that one of the most important factors in being happy at work is having a fulfilling life outside of it. “All of this [research] boils down to two things being important, regardless of your circumstances: (1) having a life outside of work, and (2) having the money to afford it.”

While this makes perfect sense, it’s something that’s easy to forget when workplace demands mount. Do what you can to balance the need to earn a living with actually enjoying the benefits it allows you to afford.

6. Buy a plant  A University of Queensland study into “the long-term impacts of plants in an office environment” showed that productivity increased by 15% when living greenery was added to a workplace. But productivity wasn’t the only benefit. Over the course of several weeks, workers in three separate offices in the Netherlands reported better air quality, improved powers of concentration and a general increase in workplace satisfaction.

Simple way to improve your mood: buy a plant (and do your best to keep it alive).

7. Earn more Research from career site Glassdoor showed that a higher salary correlated with higher workplace satisfaction. So, earn more and you’ll be happier. If only it were that easy, right?

However, this is a good reminder that it is important to feel appreciated for the work that you do, so if you feel that you are undervalued at work, it might be time to appropriately approach the matter of a raise.

If that’s not an option given the current economic challenges South Africa is facing, take heart. The Glassdoor research showed that higher salaries only make people “a little bit” happier. So this factor isn’t the be all and end all of your life – and work – satisfaction.

The bottom line While there are many factors in the workplace that are out of your control, there are things you can do to improve your happiness both in and out of the office. Try to get on with your co-workers, boost your earning potential and develop a vision for your future. And if all else fails, African violets are lovely!

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