Not long ago, I asked my brother how his job was.
“Great!” he said. “The people are great, the job is interesting, and it’s kinda restored my faith in how great a job can be!”
Wow, I thought. That’s not what people usually say about work. “How the job going?” is more often met with, “Yeah, okay” or “Yeah, good” if it’s going somewhat well or, if it’s not, a queasy stomach look and a shrug.
I should point out that my brother was new to the job, which you may have guessed. If you don’t love your job then, you probably never will, at least that’s what we normally think. In some ways, it’s not even cool to love your job after you’ve had it a while because by then you’ve encountered all the usual obstacles — clueless managers, ambitious deadlines, tight budgets. Who could love that job?
It’s customary to sideline whatever was appealing about the job to begin with — the challenge, the company’s reputation, a friend’s endorsement, the short commute. Those become commonplace, unworthy of any mental attention. We take them for granted, focusing instead on other thoughts. My boss is so checked out, the project budget is ridiculous, and the clients never give an inch!
And unhappiness is born.
Where we direct our mental energy goes a long way towards determining how content or disgruntled we are. When mental energy goes to complaining — to others or just to ourselves — that leaves us irritated with the job, the boss, the clients, the finance department, you name it. Therefore, taking for granted what is actually still pretty great means we devote a lot of our mental attention to the things we don’t like.
Blasé About Good Fortune
The other day, I read a piece about a couple who’d won a million dollars on a scratch-it ticket. They were describing the moment they realized they’d won, the excitement, the delight, the plans they started making right away (“What shall we buy first?!?”).
But weeks later it was all sort of, “Oh yeah, we won.” Still pleased, but no longer thrilled. Everything, even a million dollar surprise, becomes routine after a while . . . if we let it.
The question is, should we let it? Should we let the things we were excited about become run of the mill in our own minds?
Before the answer to that question, a caveat: you may prefer to keep the status quo, to take for granted whatever it is you already take for granted. You may think it’s not possible or even worth it to be other than blasé about life on the job, and if that’s the case, read no further.
But if you’d like to feel happier, more patient, and easier-going in the new year, read on. Here are a few ways to realistically and practically redirect your mental energies to that end.
You’ll be happier at work if you’re grateful, consciously and actively grateful, for aspects of your daily professional life. Grateful for the challenge. Grateful for the coworkers you’re friends with. Grateful for the paycheck. Whatever you can realistically be grateful for, do it, because a grateful mind is more optimistic and less dissatisfied than a take-it-for-granted mind, so says UC Berkeley’s Dr. Robert Emmon, “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude.”
Be grateful, and then you’ll be happy. We usually think it’s the other way around, that if I’m happy at work, THEN I’ll be grateful for whatever is making me happy. “Grateful first” seems counterintuitive. But try it. Be grateful for whatever you can sincerely and reasonably be grateful for. Make it as heartfelt as possible because happiness follows gratitude, not the other way around.
And note that gratitude is a state of mind that rarely pops up on its own. One way you can prove that to yourself is to think about people who have things you want but don’t have. Are they grateful? Unlikely. We have to cultivate a mind of genuine gratitude, not wait for it to appear. Even for just a few minutes a day, think gratefully about things you normally take for granted.
The opposite of gratitude is dwelling on aspects of work you don’t like. Of course the workplace is not a bed of pansies, but thinking of it exclusively as a bed of thorns will ratchet up your own misery, and the bed of thorns perspective will affect no one else’s state of mind at all, just yours.
I get that it’s easy to focus on downsides, to keep remembering a perceived injustice, for example — passed over for promotion, carped at in an email, ignored in a meeting. And in some places, there’s a culture of complaining and commiserating, which seems oddly comforting. I’m not alone in thinking this place is deranged!
But what good comes of revisiting past slights or even bad decisions (except to ensure they aren’t repeated)? Relax your grip. When your mind wanders back to those things you’re still holding onto (How could I not have gotten on that project? I’m better qualified than anyone!), stop to consider what good will come of that thought. Then let it go.
I know people who say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me!” It sounds so brave. It sounds like making good use of one’s time too, as if spending time on what anyone else thinks is just so much frivolity.
But the truth is that most people care a lot about what they regard as their reputation — what the boss thinks, whether they get plum assignments, whether colleagues respect them, etc. We spend time defending our expertise, our side of an argument, or even simply our opinion on social media.
The truth is that no one can control what anyone else thinks. You can’t control what others think of you, or what others think of anything — the weather, the company’s CEO, the prospect of self-driving cars, or the new leader of Germany. None of it.
So work conscientiously, and apply your expertise to the max. Be diligent, honest, thorough and even kind, and as long as you know you have those bases covered, your reputation with yourself will be intact. As for what anyone else thinks, you can try to keep their opinion of you in line with what you think they should think of you, but don’t be surprised if you spend a lot of energy on that for minimal return.
Your Responsibility to You?
A few years ago, I read a book by Dr. Rick Hanson called The Practical Neurology of Buddha’s Brain, where he examines the neurological effects of meditating and of redirecting one’s thoughts in more positive directions. The brain responds by re-grooving new neural pathways which enable positive thoughts, better focus, and a greater sense of well-being.
What we do, he says, and how we apply our mental energy has everything to do with the quality of the life we lead. That’s incredibly good news. We can, with effort, improve our experience of everything by changing our mental habits.
And although I usually like to have the last word, I’m going to let Dr. Hanson have it this time because what he says here is worth remembering as you head into the new year:
“It’s a general moral principle that the more power you have over someone, the greater your duty is to use that power benevolently. Who is the one person in the world you have the greatest power over? It’s your future self. You hold that life in your hands, and what it will be depends on how you care for it.”
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.