Happiness at work shows up in unexpected places....
My work career has provided abundant opportunity to learn, stretch and gain experiences and perspective - not just for the particular job, but life itself. Among my diverse professional roles, amazingly - and perhaps tellingly - only two stand out as really happy and positive experiences. As a Legal Aid Paralegal, I advocated for individuals with HIV/AIDS. The objective was to to access much needed government benefits. Despite difficulties including conflicting personal agendas, poor communication among staff and the constant threat of budget cuts, staff turnover was low and personal friendships were strong.
My other happy experience was my role as Project Manager under a university grant. As a mighty team of six professionals, we developed a computer-based learning tool for county agencies. Our responsibilities included marketing, product development, networking - and also some fun and challenging writing and traveling assignments.
How did these jobs deliver happiness? Does it matter?
Reason 1: Sense of purpose is high and constant.
The need to be of service to others represents a person's inner driving force. For hours I poured over documents, as a paralegal, in search of a winning way to access money and to ease a client’s dire situation. When an approval for benefits came through, it meant someone received a new lease-on-life and could better care for themselves. Although pay in this position was low, personal rewards were high. I could feel a major human impact. I knew no better way to spend my time and felt a strong sense of accomplishment. My reputation for service spread quickly in the community. My schedule filled up with people needing help. Time flew by, and I couldn't wait to return to the office on Monday.
Reason 2: Humor is part of the office environment.
As Project Managers we shared room space while divided into open cubicles. We shared jokes over cubicle dividers, laughed at our foibles, and shared life's absurdities. Sometimes staff members did not get along or tension ran high in the tiny space. But because we valued laughter over drama - tense moments did not linger. Potential clients observed our humorous interactions and natural camaraderie. We attracted lucrative business because clients recognized we functioned as a cohesive whole. Laughter pushed us out of superficial conversation and facilitated authentic connection. This bonding continued beyond work time. We happily attended outside family events such as graduations and weddings. Humor allowed us to operate as a unit.
Reason 3: Freedom to use imagination and express ideas.
Thriving is a natural outcome when autonomy and growth mindset are celebrated. Close-knit university colleagues freely shared fresh ideas on optimizing client interactions and improving systems. Our thinking and creativity flourished in a culture where leaders trusted our capacity to consistently generate good results. Leadership’s encouragement promoted a willingness in us all to go above and beyond even when no one was watching.
Reason 4: Recognition increases our esteem and value.
The gift of being valued by co-workers heightened my commitment to the organization’s mission. My actions were recognized as non-threatening or disempowering. Fellow workers perceived my motivation to genuinely contribute to the greater good. I, too, took advantage of opportunities to publicly praise and acknowledge co-workers. In jobs where I haven't been happy, it has often been due to lack of recognition and respect. Instead of building excitement and inspiration, I felt empty and drained. Resentments build when efforts go unrecognized. Burnout and stress follow.
Reason 5: Boundaries are respected and maintained.
At Legal Aid I discovered how weak boundaries erode relationships and wound an environment's spirit. A toxic climate brings out everyone's worst: sabotage, separation, favoritism and gossip.
On the flip side, our esteemed project director at the university held regular brainstorming meetings, met regularly with individual staff, and treated everyone with the same genuine regard for well-being. Under her care and leadership, staff felt safe to establish healthy boundaries with one other, and believed co-workers would honor them. I loved the people there because a strong service mission superseded personal dramas.
What job made you happy? How did you contribute? What held you back? How would you do things differently? What makes the difference? Does happiness matter?