Happy work isn’t some dream job that you can find out there in the world. It’s cultivated – you have to create it within yourself. You have to invent meaning, order, and the appreciation of many arts. You have to set aside the nature of the work, your comfort with it, and the rewards associated with it.
It might seem counter-intuitive that struggle can be enjoyable or that it can be voluntarily undergone without attachment to the outcome. That’s not intuition – that’s conditioning. Of course struggle can be happy and detached – it’s just a mindset.
I’m not talking about spending your life dreaming of triumph after the struggle, either. The difficult work itself can be happy.
Here are three ways to go about the art of cultivating happy work.
1. Create Meaning
For any work, you need to know why you’re doing it in the first place. The meaning you give work is your motivation, but it’s not your purpose. A purpose is a goal, an achievable end, in the context of work. A meaning, on the other hand, is tied up with no concrete, quantifiable success. A purpose of work might be to simply live or to accumulate wealth, but there’s no meaning in that.
A meaning is a choice of virtue. It’s a statement of what you think is good. All your work must have a context of moral decision if it is to be happy. The moral decision is a fundamental choice about your life. It’s a temporary belief, subject to change as you grow unless you fall unconscious into a rut. The meaning you give your work is an act of self-determination.
The meaning you give your work is also the means by which your work becomes a sacrifice to a symbol you paint in the air. That symbol is as real as all the other evaluations you make, all the other things you perceive. Having sacrificed, you need not worry – whether your purpose is fulfilled is subject to the fluctuations of life, but your meaning will thrive so long as your sacrifices are worthy. Much of the art of happy work is letting go of desired consequences. Doing happy work is being propelled, while work without meaning is reaching.
The meaning of my web consultant work is the image of a happy, secure family. That work is, for me, an articulation of caring. It’s a sacrifice – but not to them, but rather on their behalf. Because it’s a devotional act, they owe me nothing. The meaning of my writing, on the other hand, is self-knowledge through expression. I reach out to you, dear readers, through myself in a coherent sacrifice for comprehension. Like my family, you owe me nothing. My work is happy.
2. Leave a Trail of Resolution
You arrive on the scene of disarray and leave it ordered. You discover an apparent contradiction and investigate until it is understood. You receive a complaint and help the complainer restore themselves. All these things are radiating waves of restfulness you can deposit behind you as you travel through your workday.
Leaving such resolution behind you as you go isn’t the same thing as positivity, at least not in the sense of making people happy. We cannot serve people by pleasing them, and even if we could that wouldn’t necessarily be positive. But we can undo damages, and that’s the same thing for those who can understand it.
Leaving a trail of resolution is the result of specific modes of mindfulness. The deposits of resultfulness arise when we approach the work in an affirmative, constructive mindset. Sometimes it’s very difficult to remain detached without flare-ups of ego during work, but that points to the parallel between our inner state and our work.
When we clean a mess, we become calmer and more ordered inside. The same parallel applies to bigger work – when we fix problems as our primary mode of engagement, we recover happiness through our labor.
Seek out the difficult projects and, if you’re centered enough, the difficult clients. Go beyond technicalities and seek to comprehend the clouded states of awareness that created the problem. Whether the originators are still on the scene or not, your resolution of the problem will then contain some healing of that same disordered awareness within you.
When you understand your commitments and revise work to be a constructive healing effort, those changes alone can bring about immense feelings of fulfillment. Fulfillment is more profound than success, which is occasional victory in an endless striving after goals. Without achieving or clinging, we can be perfectly fulfilled. Still, there’s one more consideration in the art of cultivating happy work.
3. Open to a Thousand Arts
No happy work involves just a single skill set. There’s a thousand arts to become a craftsman in. Whether it’s the opportunity to putter in a technical skill you aren’t accomplished in, the chance to become better at communication, or just the physicality of flexing your muscles by reloading the copy machine – there’s always deeper movements you can practice during the times of routine work.
The exhausting queue of emails can be seen as an interesting puzzle of time management containing dozens of challenges in audience-focused writing. The calls and meetings are chances to work on your presentation and ad-libbed humor. Can you combine refusal with politeness? Can you accept constructive criticism? Can you collaborate with or motivate difficult people? Above all, can you remain patient?
The biggest self-improvement area of happy work, though, lies in self-determination. I stopped checking Google Analytics on this blog because it was contaminating my writing – diluting it with the desire to attract more readers – and I feel that abandonment improved my writing. I stopped worrying about the occasional emotional flare-ups of my clients for the same reason: they were contaminating my professionalism when I let them change my approaches. You have to subtract out the need for external validation, if your work is ever going to be happy. Happy work involves the acceptance of constructive criticism but also the recognition of worthless criticism. Can you remain driven without praise, can you be fulfilled without reciprocation? These are essential questions.
The Ongoing Cultivation of Happy Work
When you do these things, chopping wood and carrying water can be the happiest work you’ve ever done. When you don’t, working at an orphanage can destroy your life. You have to let go of the nature of your work.
You also have to let go of your attachment to comfort. Any work really worth doing is hard and easy work can never be happy work. It can be a welcome break, but soon it becomes tedious or the addictive narcotic of mindlessness.
You also have to let go of your purpose. Not all (or even most) of your important work is about paychecks or specific accomplishments. You always have stuff worth working on, unless you’ve gone numb. The happiness of work isn’t based on rewards, you have to let go of your societal conditioning that makes you only perform tricks for treats.
But above all that: you have to change your mind and your approach to work as you grow. Happy work is a dynamic thing. Be kind to yourself and don’t confuse the virtue of hard work with some endorsement of miserable work. It’s not – both happy and miserable work are hard. There’s no award ceremony at the end of life for having been the biggest martyr for no reason at all, so choose the hard, happy work of making changes.
You may also enjoy:
- Cultivating Happy Relationships
- Small Thinking and Spiritual Truths
- A Rant Against Life Purpose
- Life is the Ultimate Self Improvement Guide
- Improving Your Happiness Baseline
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