Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life – or so the saying goes. But what does it really take to find a career that you’ll be truly happy in?
Although most of us know what makes us happy in our personal lives, translating this to our professional lives can be a more difficult task. Research shows that today’s job seekers believe more strongly than ever that their careers should be fulfilling and meaningful, and one study found that 72% of Generation Y wouldn’t apply for a role with an organization if they didn’t believe in what it stood for.
Despite this, many workers aren’t happy in their chosen careers and a recent survey by Deloitte found that if given the chance, 44% of millennials would quit their job to join a new organisation or do something different within the next two years.
If this sounds familiar and you’d like to change careers or simply gain more satisfaction from your current job, here’s what research says about crafting happiness at work.
- Use your strengths and talents
Although when choosing a career we tend to gravitate towards the things we love, it’s a lot more realistic to pursue something we are good at, or at least, have the potential to be good at. Research shows that working in a job that allows you to use your strengths and talents is the best way to reduce stress, increase productivity, and feel happy and fulfilled.
For the study, researchers had 577 volunteers pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way for one week. After this week, the volunteers reported feeling significantly happier at work and their levels of happiness remained high for a full month after the initial experiment.
Of course, it’s important to realise that loving something and being good at something aren’t necessarily the same thing. You might love painting, movies or music, but if you lack talent, it’s unlikely that you’ll gain much satisfaction or fulfilment from working in these areas.
- Look for work that challenges you
Although you might think that a low-stress job would make you happier, research shows that dealing with some stress at work can be a good thing because it helps you feel challenged. If you have no stress whatsoever, you’ll likely become bored with your job and as a result, you’ll be less productive.
Moderate and short-term stress, on the other hand, can actually energise you, improve your job performance and increase your overall job satisfaction.
One study even found that workers in stressful jobs are a third less likely to die than those with easier jobs, as long as they’re in control of their own workflow. So the key to using stress productively is to find a job that challenges you, but also gives you the freedom to set goals and decide your own schedule.
- Find a supportive work environment
If you want to be happy at work, one of the most important things to look for is a supportive work environment, because studies show that social support is one of the top predictors of job satisfaction.
Of course, you can’t and won’t become friends with everyone you work with, but a supportive work environment is less about having a lot of friends and more about knowing that you can count on your colleagues and supervisors for help when you run into difficulties or need feedback.
So when looking for a new job, focus on the workplace culture and find out whether or not you’ll be able to get help and feedback when you need it.
- Look for ways to help others
Although it might seem like a cliché, a number of studies have found that when you’re able to help others in some way, your job will seem more meaningful and satisfying. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a doctor or social worker in order to be happy at work.
Some research indicates that employees can “craft” their own jobs to become more satisfied and engaged, and one way to do this is to work on consciously changing the way you view your job and the tasks you perform on a daily basis.
For example, one study found that although zookeepers aren’t usually very highly paid and often perform menial tasks such as scrubbing animal enclosures, they’re passionate about what they do because they view it as a way of helping animals, which makes it more meaningful to them.
- Don’t try too hard
Finally, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to be “happy” in your job, because if this is your main focus at work, it may actually become harder to achieve it.
One psychological experiment found that when people were asked to read out a statement about the importance of happiness in life before watching a positive film, they felt less happy than those who simply watched the film. The researchers speculate that when being happy feels like an obligation, people will feel worse about themselves if they are unable to feel that way.
In another study, researchers had volunteers keep a detailed diary for two weeks and found that those who placed more value on happiness tended to feel lonelier and more disconnected from others.
So while it’s great to pursue a job that will challenge you and allow you to use your strengths, it’s also important to remember that work is work. If you’re constantly trying to be upbeat about your job, you’ll only be putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges. She covers career development, workplace productivity and self-improvement. You can connect with her on Twitter and Google+, or find her latest articles here.