12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Make Your Work Day Happier

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

June 2020 saw a historic drop in engagement at work, according to a Gallup poll. Gallup, which has been tracking the number of “engaged” workers since 2000, reported an all-time high in May 2020, at 38%, only to see a sharp decline to 31% saying they were engaged just one month later.

Gallup notes that the June poll followed the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, along with unemployment and attempts to reopen businesses, as factors that may have contributed to this record drop in engagement.

But even before the pandemic, many people in the U.S. and around the world have struggled to find satisfaction in their jobs. We’re taught to find our dream job and that will lead to happiness, but according to research, often, happiness is the result of effort and changes in our routines.

12 ways to find happiness at work.

Looking to get more satisfaction out of your job? We’ve rounded up 12 ideas for finding happiness at work that are backed by science. 

1. Form strong relationships with your colleagues.

Alexander Kjerulf, the founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Woohoo inc and a renowned expert on happiness at work, has widely shared his findings on job satisfaction, many of which are based on positive psychology. In his famous talk, The Science of Happiness at Work, he discusses the strong correlations between positive emotions and great work, explaining how happy employees can improve the company overall.

One key way to improve your work satisfaction is to develop strong relationships with colleagues and leaders. He points to Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, the former CEO of the Lego Group. While commending employees on a record year, the boss sang the hit song from The Lego Movie, reminding colleagues that "Everything is awesome/everything is cool when you're part of a team.” Audience members laughed and clapped along — feeling the satisfaction of being part of a team.

2. Support your colleagues.

Similarly, supporting your colleagues can also make you feel happier. Shawn Anchor, an author and the founder of GoodThink, Inc., outlines how offering social support can lead to stronger outcomes in terms of positive engagement in The Harvard Business Review. He points to research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith, and Bradley Layton, who found that high levels of social support can also contribute to your health, reporting that social support could predict longevity as reliably as regular exercise. 

Additionally, Anchor cites a study he and colleagues Phil Stone and Tal Ben-Shahar conducted at Harvard University. The researchers found that social support was highly correlated to happiness during very stressful periods. 

Anchor writes that the frequency and amount of this support also matter. For example, people he deems “social support providers,” who helped out colleagues, initiated work activities and invited others out to lunch, were 10 times more likely to find engagement at work and 40% more likely to be promoted.

3. Find your flow.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first described the concept of flow in the 1970s, after conducting research on people engaging in pleasurable activities without receiving payment or other compensation. In this state, people are completely absorbed by their work or task, even to the point where they forget about the people or goings-on around them. This state of complete and total immersion not only makes people more productive, but it also often makes them feel fulfilled and content as well.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22 because you’re unlikely to achieve flow if you don’t have work that engages you, but if you can seek out activities and tasks that totally grab you to the point of complete immersion, you’ll inevitably find more happiness and satisfaction at work. Because flow only occurs when you’re a master at the work you’re trying to accomplish, it’s also critical to ensure that you keep honing your skills.

4. Reflect on positive experiences.

Kjerulf also encourages people to take the take to think about their positive experiences. While it’s easy to focus on the negative things that happen to us — and so many of us dwell on them — this can make you feel worse about them. We’re more likely to get satisfaction out of our work if we reflect on the good things.

Kjerulh points to the Swedish financial services company Skandia. For a two-week period, the company had employees hang notecards on a clothesline that ran throughout the office. On each card, employees wrote down positive experiences from their days.

While promoting happiness throughout your company is definitely helpful, you don’t need to be a leader to implement change in your own life. For example, writing down three good things that happened to you on a given day is an independent activity you can do to find happiness.

5. Avoid multitasking.

You’ve likely heard the many downsides of multitasking. For one, it makes you far less productive than you would be if you focused on completing one task at a time.

In an NPR interview, the late Clifford Nass, a former professor of psychology at Stanford University, reported that multitasking not only wastes time but also zaps our concentration and creativity. Without your creativity, how can you be satisfied at work?

“People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy,” Nash said. “They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.”

So, instead of multitasking, remember to prioritize and give each task on your to-do list your full concentration.

6. Establish a sense of purpose.

In his book Great at Work, Morten Hansen, a management professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, explores the concept of establishing purpose at work, noting that this occurs when an individual makes “valuable contributions” to other people and the larger organization. In order to make this a successful feat, your contributions must be meaningful to you while not harming anyone else.

So, how do you establish that sense of purpose? According to Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, it involves meaningful and frequent progress toward the ultimate goal. “Even a small win,” they write in the Harvard Business Review, “can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

The authors point to James Watson and Francis Crick’s Nobel Prize-winning work toward discovering the structure of DNA. In his memoir The Double Helix, Watson writes that the team’s first real breakthrough after several failures and false starts led to a huge boost in their productivity and will to continue their work. “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle,” he writes.

7. Give yourself small rewards.

Think you need to wait for someone else to give you a prize for your work? Not so. According to William Macey and Benjamin Schneider, who published The Meaning of Employee Engagement in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, rewarding ourselves for a job well done can also increase our engagement and enthusiasm at work.

So, when you know you’ve done great work — whether you completed a project well before the deadline, came up with a fantastic idea, collaborated well with your team or won a new account — why not reward yourself? For example, perhaps you could buy or make yourself a fancy cocktail, take yourself out to dinner or get a pedicure.

8. Train your brain to be positive.

Easier said than done, you may be thinking. But according to Anchor, “Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym.”

Anchor cites research on neuroplasticity, the ability to actually change your brain, can take place well into adulthood and help you rewire yourself to develop new, better habits. His research shows that engaging in just one positive exercise every day for just three weeks can have meaningful results on your happiness, at work and in life. 

Anchor tested this idea on tax managers at KPMG in New York and New Jersey, asking them to take part in one of five activities regularly for three weeks, such as writing down three things they were grateful for every day or exercising for 10 minutes per day. Even four months later, the participants had higher scores in optimism and life satisfaction than the control group did.

9. Add a little levity and fun.

Hearkening back to the Gallup poll discussed at the beginning of this article, we know it’s clear people aren’t engaged enough in their work or the workplace. According to “How to Be More Engaged at Work,” published in The Greater Good Magazine, a science-backed publication of The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, part of the problem could be a lack of “joy and fun” in the workplace.

If you’re a manager, you could introduce activities that add levity to your employees’ lives. For example, you could introduce happy hours or birthday celebrations. If you’re an employee, there’s no reason why you can’t bring a little more joy into your own work and life. Try participating in activities with colleagues outside of work. Or, be a little more humorous in your interactions with others. Share stories and experiences with others and take the time to have fun conversations, even if they’re not about work-related matters.

10. Practice mindfulness.

Here’s one that can have major implications on your entire life and overall happiness. Many people, including highly successful ones (such as Oprah Winfrey), swear by daily mindfulness practices. 

In a controlled trial of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention conducted in a public hospital in Spain, staff could take part in a program that consisted of 150-minute sessions. The study found that work engagement, happiness and performance were boosted among individuals who participated compared with those in the control group.

Of course, not everyone has this amount of time to commit to mindfulness practices. But even just 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation or related activities could have a real impact on your work life and overall contentment.

11. Take breaks.

Perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, but taking breaks during the workday — real breaks — can increase your energy. It can also decrease the likelihood of expressing burnout in the long term.

YoungAh Park and colleagues conducted a study on telemarketers working at call centers in Korea, in which they introduced short microbreaks that fell into different categories — relaxation (e.g. stretching or daydreaming), social (chatting with colleagues or texting) or nutritional (eating or drinking). 

According to the results of the study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers found that the relaxation and social break of just a few minutes resulted in a mood boost. This also translated into better sales performance among those who were already less engaged at work.

12. Rethink stress.

“Many companies offer training on how to mitigate stress, focusing on its negative health effects,” André Spicer and Carl Cederström write in the Harvard Business Review. “The problem is, people then get stressed out about being stressed out.”

But what if we reconsidered the entire concept of stress? According to Spicer and Cederström, stress has an upside. In one study conducted at UBS during the banking crisis, they asked managers to watch one of two videos. The first presented stress as debilitating to performance, while the second showed how stress can enhance the human brain and body. After six weeks, those who watched the second video scored higher on the Stress Mindset Scale and ultimately saw a reduction in health problems, along with an increase in happiness at work.

“Stress is not just an obstacle to growth; it can be the fuel for it,” the authors conclude.

So, what if we reframed stress? Since we all experience it at work sometimes, this could be a good way to improve our outlook. The authors suggest making a list of stresses you’re experiencing and categorizing them according to what you can control and what you can’t. They advise choosing one stressor you can control and determining one small step you can take to reduce it — which, they say, will ultimately “nudge your brain back to a positive — and productive — mindset.”