Approaching Our Work with Joy

Earlier this year, my daughter received a small part in a community theater production of The Little Mermaid. A very small part. Remember the seagull who thinks that a fork was a hairbrush? My daughter was one of his backup singers (also a seagull), and she had exactly one line: “Awk!”

She had worked on her audition monologue and song for weeks. Because she was one of the younger kids trying out for the show, I knew that she wouldn’t get a big role. I worried, however, about her reaction when she found out that her line – “Awk! – would take her as much time to memorize as it would to say. Would she be upset? Would she be angry? Would she want to quit the show entirely?

Her reaction? Utter rapture. As soon as she learned about the casting, she began practicing her “Awk!” endlessly – experimenting with different pitches, volumes, levels of screechiness. She was the most enthusiastic backup seagull I had ever seen, approaching every practice[1] and the performances with tremendous excitement. And her energy was contagious. When I picked up her after the show, older kids cheerfully sang out “Awk!” whenever they saw her.

Watching my daughter approach her tiny role with such sheer joy, I began to wonder: Why don’t I have that kind of attitude toward my work?

Why We Don’t Approach Our Work with Joy

I think there are a few common reasons why joy isn’t our default attitude toward our work.

We focus on our problems: On many days, perhaps even most days, the problems we confront at work demand our attention. Projects falling behind schedule, customers asking for help, difficult clients with difficult demands – problem-solving is a highly desired job skill, because there are just so many problems to solve.

We get caught up in routine: When we’re not dealing with unexpected problems, though, there’s a good chance that our work looks much the same from day to day. For some of us, today’s work is virtually identical to yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s will be nearly the same, too. Even if you enjoy predictability and consistency, it’s easy to fall into a rut, trudging through each day simply to get to the next one.

We compare ourselves to others: It has always been tempting to compare ourselves to others at work, judging the quality of our work, the level of our compensation, the amount of recognition received, etc., in relation to those doing better and getting more. Now that we can keep track of virtually everyone through social media, it’s become even easier to play the comparison game. Further, on social media, others generally display the best edited version of their lives, so we see only their successes, rarely their struggles. We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing more poorly than we really are.

We think of what’s not, rather than what is: Closely related to the last point, we take for granted the things that we already have, while pining for the things we don’t yet have – or even those things we will never have. You may have a great job, but as long as you think mostly about the (supposedly) even better job that you don’t have, your great job will seem poor in comparison.

Increasing Your Joy

How can you increase the joy that you bring to our work? First, while it may be necesary to sometimes “fake it ’til you make it” (i.e. putting on a joyful exterior that doesn’t match your real feelings), that should only be a temporary solution. Faking enthusiasm not only consumes a great deal of emotional energy, it can also lead us to cover us legitimate dissatisfaction that we need to address.

Here are a few ways that we can bring more joy to our work.

Rest. It’s hard to be joyful when you’re exhausted. Even in the best jobs – sometimes, especially in the best jobs – we can grow tired, which then affects us in ways that we don’t even realize (because we’re too tired). On a recent episode of Back to Work, Merlin Mann made that the point that physical tiredness can lead to inattention, dissatisfaction, irritability, and many other responses that we may chalk up to much bigger issues, yet all we really need is a good night’s sleep. If it’s hard for you to get excited about your work, try getting eight or nine hours of sleep for the next couple of days. If you can, schedule some vacation time. Take regular, weekly breaks from work. Human beings, unlike robots, aren’t designed to work 24–7.

Give thanks. As a counter to the tendancy to focus on what we don’t have, set aside some time to give thanks for what you do have, even if you initially feel that you don’t have much. Further, don’t simply do this once as an exercise, and then forget about your thankfulness. Make a habit of giving thanks for your work on a regular basis – daily, if possible. Changing the way you think about your work, as something you are explicitly thankful for, can have a huge impact on your attitude towards work.

Celebrate your successes. For myself, this is one of the most difficult practices to keep. I naturally focus on the problems that I need to solve and the difficulties I need to overcome, without stopping to realize how many problems and difficulties I have already defeated. When I started my current job, my wife bought me a small journally specifically for writing down my successes. I try to record even small victories in the journal, and then look back through my accomplishments every so often. In the kind of work that I do, there usually isn’t any kind of physical reminder of how much I’ve done. At the end of the day, there’s no Hoover Dam or stack of chopped lumber, even though I am still mentally and physically exhausted. Keeping track of – and celebrating – my successes allows me to remember that I’m tired for a good reason: I’ve put in a hard day’s work.

Reflect on your initial excitement – and your longterm goals. Finally, we can mentally remove ourselves from the daily routine and constant stream of problems that we face, to look both backward and forward at our work. I hope that there was some point when you were spontaneously excited about your work – the initial offer, the first day, maybe even the day you applied for the job. What made you so excited? What promise did the work hold for you? Going in the other direction, what do you want to accomplishment through your work? Move up a level to think about the bigger picture of your work. What dreams do you want to fulfill?

Joy doesn’t always come easily or naturally. Sometimes, paradoxically, it requires discipline to develop an ongoing sense of joy. How do you bring a joyful attitude to your work?

Photo credit: Margaret Almon via Flickr

  1. OK – most practices. Even the most excited junior actor needs some encouragement once in a while.  ↩

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