The Wisdom Project

Fall in love with a job you don't even like, in three steps

Story highlights

  • More than half of us don't like our jobs
  • Social science research has identified factors that can improve workplace happiness
  • There are actions you can take, today, to improve those factors

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)More than half of Americans find their job unsatisfactory, according to an annual survey released last month by the Conference Board research group. The nation has been hovering around the halfway mark of job dissatisfaction since at least 2000.

Think of the people you work with every day. Half of them do not like being there. Maybe you're one of them, living a life that Henry David Thoreau would have described as one of "quiet desperation."
    Many of us also conflate our self-worth with our career, unhelpfully, and our job unhappiness becomes life unhappiness, which raises the stakes.
    Wouldn't it be nice to stop being envious of those who love their jobs and become one of them?
    There is a lot of career advice out there about how to ask for a raise, get a promotion, deal with a difficult boss, manage others and so on. But very little addresses the fundamental issue of your day-to-day happiness at work, which is a shame, since you don't need anyone else to give you that happiness.
    The factors that can tip the scales one way or the other for job happiness can boil down to our innate desire for three things: control over our lives, positive daily connections, and joy and meaning in how we spend our waking time (half of which is at work, for most people).
    The way to integrate our need for control, connection and meaning -- while on the clock -- is by "job crafting." That's the term used by Yale University psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and University of Michigan professor of business administration and psychology Jane E. Dutton. It's about "taking control of, or reframing, some of these factors," they wrote in a study on the topic.

    The problem is not the job

    People who don't like their jobs -- i.e., most of us -- may suffer and grumble day to day. They may even be chronically stressed, a state that has serious medical consequences, from hypertension and cardiovascular disease to decreased mental health, according to a meta-analysis of studies by the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School.
    There are also factors connected to job happiness that we have little control over, such as your boss. About half of people who quit their job did so "to get away from their manager," according to a Gallup poll last year. Salaries are important as well.
    But we don't usually decide who our boss is, and they can suddenly change. As for money, studies have showed it has only a short-term effect on happiness.
    So that leaves you with one powerful recourse: Take matters into your own hands.
    Wrzesniewski and Dutton's research focused on three main factors of deeper workplace satisfaction that are within your sphere of influence: 1) Refining your job to add parts you like and remove parts you don't. 2) Building better relationships with your colleagues. 3) Reframing your job to add meaning and purpose.
    Wrzesniewski distilled them nicely on the excellent social science podcast The Hidden Brain. Their research isn't just theoretical. They wrote an instruction manual on how to job craft.
    And -- in my own, less scientific, more DIY way -- here are exercises I've been practicing to get into better work happiness shape.

    1) Hack your job

    Start by making three lists. (Do this over a nice cup of coffee or tea in a quiet place, during work hours.) One list is all the things you currently like about your job, big and small. The second lists all the hassles and headaches of your job, from the petty to the systemic.
    And the third lists things you'd like to be able to do in your job that you currently don't -- even if they have nothing to do with what you're paid to do. You can add "take more solo brainstorming coffee breaks" to it if you like.
    Now, it's time to systematically attack items on the second two lists. Go for a few easy wins first. Some things you can start adding and subtracting today; others may take months. Some may require buy-in from your boss (who will hopefully be amenable to increasing your workplace happiness), but many won't. Some changes will be directly related to your job, while others will just be ways to increase happiness or reduce stress while there.
    It's all progress.
    Be imaginative with these lists. Creativity is itself a well-being booster. Writing this wisdom column is something I added to my job. It has benefits to the company I can easily articulate but also makes me happy (and adds meaning to my job). I also try to go to the gym in our office. Again, it has the benefit of reducing stress and sick days while increasing my energy at work but also benefits me personally.
    Over time, your lists will grow and, as you cross off items, shrink. But make sure that when you remove an item from the second list (things you don't like) and third list (what you want to add), you record the change on the first list (things you like about your job). Every new item on that first list is another rung in the ladder of work happiness, and it's good to look down every so often and see how high you've reached.

    2) Enjoy your work neighbors

    You can't do much to change the cast of characters with whom you work. But you can enhance every one of those relationships.
    Learn more about what others want and help them achieve it, even if you aren't their boss. Make meetings more fun or engaging. Help reduce the length, mandatory attendance and frequency of those meetings. Instigate off-site gatherings, even in the middle of the day. Get lunches, coffees and drinks, and don't talk about work unless you really want to. Try inserting humor throughout the day.