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Why looking for the perfect job won’t lead to happiness at work

Are you happy at work? In today’s fast-moving and complex workplace, fulfillment might feel like a luxury. In fact, according to the University of Phoenix 2024 Career Optimism Index® report, 42% of surveyed American workers fear job loss due to the economy. You can’t complain about a job when at least you have a job, right?

Not exactly. A growing cultural emphasis on work-life balance and wellness, along with increases in flexible and remote work options, have spurred on workers to reassess their jobs and prioritize their fulfillment and well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this desire for change. During that time, labor shortages created a favorable job market with opportunities for workers to reassess their career paths. This period, dubbed the Great Resignation, saw millions of workers quit their jobs, many in pursuit of increased happiness and fulfillment.

While the Great Resignation has ended, it has given rise to other workplace phenomena, such as loud quitting and quiet quitting. The fact that these trends continue to impact our culture (never mind if they’re advisable) indicates that workers are no longer willing to passively accept unhappiness at work.

What exactly contributes to workplace happiness then? In the end, it may not be the actual job, even if you do happen to find your “dream job.” In fact, pursuing a dream job often leads to disappointment, because every role, no matter how ideal it seems, brings challenges, mundane tasks and frustrations. But finding happiness is still possible. You just have to know where to look. 

What it really means to be happy at work

To get to the bottom of what makes people happy at work, we first need to understand what happiness really is. Generally, happiness is a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. It’s the “feeling” part that is key: Feelings, perceptions and emotions are all subjective and ephemeral. Temporary, in other words.

Think about a healthy and fulfilling personal relationship you have. Does having that partner, child or friend in your life mean you are always completely happy when you’re with them? Of course not.

Well, work is no different. Being happy at work doesn't mean you never feel dissatisfied. It means you feel content with your job overall, despite running into occasional hardships or negative feelings. In fact, those tough moments are an important part of the emotional spectrum.

For instance, you might be annoyed after a disagreement with a co-worker or feel stressed from rushing to meet a tight project deadline. Feeling temporary frustration or pressure, however, can serve as the good kind of stress that drives you to resolve a conflict (and build your interpersonal skills in the process) or achieve something difficult (by completing the project). Thus, “negative” emotions become a positive experience.

Flourishing vs. happiness

Martin Seligman, a pioneer in positive psychology, introduces a more comprehensive view of happiness with his concept of flourishing. Seligman explains that flourishing contains five key components known as PERMA:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Evaluating your job against PERMA can help you identify how to be positive and engaged, even when you face obstacles. That’s why I prefer to use the term flourishing as opposed to happiness in the workplace. Flourishing moves us beyond the pursuit of fleeting happy moments, suggesting that real job satisfaction comes from finding value in our work, having meaningful connections with colleagues, and feeling a sense of achievement.

This perspective also shifts the focus away from external rewards (salary and title) or even your specific tasks to instead highlight the importance of your internal experiences and contributions.

Is it a bad day or a bad environment?

Although it is impossible to be happy all the time, there are instances when a toxic workplace hinders your ability to be successful and flourish.

One key indicator of a bad environment is being placed in unethical situations, such as being asked to cheat, cause harm or work for a company whose values sharply contradict your own.

Toxic workplaces also often harbor a pervasive culture of fear, negativity, unrealistic expectations and a lack of support.

If you believe you’re in such an environment, try discussing your feelings and concerns with leadership, and be sure to provide specific examples. These types of cultures can stem from poor communication, so shedding light on your experiences and feelings through conversation may help initiate positive changes.

Be sure, however, to approach it the correct way. For example:

  1. Choose the right time and place. Request a private meeting when both you and the leaders are less likely to feel rushed, distracted or overly emotional.
  2. Open with your positive intent. You might start with, “I value being part of this team and I am committed to our success.’’
  3. Outline specific examples of your experiences and offer solutions. Be careful to avoid emotional or absolute language like, “It’s not fair” or “You always ....” While those feelings may be valid, this language can escalate emotions rather than encourage understanding. Instead, offer examples and solutions in a neutral manner using “I” language. This helps to reduce high emotion and focuses on your own experiences rather than generalizing. “Lately, I’ve felt…” is a good opener, for example.
  4. Ask leadership for input. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the situation.”

While there is no certainty in how the leaders might respond, remaining neutral, constructive and solutions-focused helps to paint you as someone who is positive and committed to the organization’s success, which may pave the way for positive change.

If, despite your good-faith efforts to communicate your concerns, you find that approaching leadership results in resistance, denial or a sense that your voice is being ignored, it could be time to move on.

How to flourish at work

While a positive work environment lays the foundation for flourishing, you must also take active steps to cultivate your own growth, engagement and sense of achievement. But how exactly does one accomplish this?

The PERMA model of flourishing identifies relationships as a central factor of happiness, a concept corroborated by a decades-long Harvard study that suggests relationships are the number-one factor contributing to our happiness in life.

While you don’t have to get along with every co-worker, having people in the workplace whom you can count on and who can support you is vital. These relationships can create moments of happiness during difficult situations. Many organizations offer employee resource groups where you can connect with like-minded individuals.

Also, consider how you can nurture relationships with peers in the workplace. Take time to chat or decompress through conversation: This could mean popping into a friendly co-worker’s office or sending them a Zoom invitation to catch up. Whether it’s collaborating on a project together or simply sharing plans for the weekend, these conversations foster a sense of community that can make navigating difficult situations or times in the workplace more rewarding.

Additionally, embrace opportunities for growth through continuous learning. Learning new skills will not only help you be more effective at work, but it can also deepen engagement and can open doors to future career enhancement. Take a proactive approach by expressing interest in working on a project or collaborating with another department.

Another way to invest in your skill development is to enroll in courses or workshops, or start a degree or a professional development program. Many platforms offer resources at little or no cost and allow you to expand your skill set at your own pace.

Since achievement is a key indicator of flourishing in the workplace, having opportunities to accomplish and achieve goals can also help you stay motivated and feel happy. This may involve setting SMART goals around specific work areas. For example, a goal could include moving into a new role or working on a project. Or it could even entail smaller tasks like meeting one new person each month or sharing an idea in a team meeting. Setting goals is a way to stay engaged with your work, learn or experience something new while also fostering a sense of achievement.

Regardless of your profession, the path to flourishing lies within you. After all, happiness is not an end destination, but an attitude you carry along the way.

Explore career resources 

Take control of your career and your path to flourishing with the following resources available to University of Phoenix students and graduates:

  • Career Services for Life® commitment: Available to UOPX students and graduates, this offering comprises complimentary career coaching, including guidance on how to build a personal brand and write a resumé.
  • Free career resources:Browse a range of downloadable guides and templates to help you optimize your LinkedIn® profile, get ready for a job interview and write a resumé and cover letter.
  • Career With Confidence™ newsletter:Get career insights every week via UOPX’s LinkedIn newsletter.

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Portrait of Jessica Roper

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Roper is the director of Career Services at University of Phoenix. She is passionate about mentorship and coaching and driven by helping others succeed in their careers. Her love of reading has inspired her to venture into writing, where she is eager to share her insights about the latest workforce trends as well as leadership guidance and advice. If she doesn’t have a book in her hand, you’ll find her listening to a podcast, making a mess in the kitchen or taking her dog on a leisurely walk.

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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