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Do you love your job? Or do you dread Monday –and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday –mornings? Whatever your answer, here are some tips to help you find more contentment at work. Of course, your mindset and attitude towards your work are important in contributing to just how you feel. So, the three tips below are not easy fixes, and the goal is not to make you “happy” at work but simply to help you find more meaning in what you do and feel better about going to work. If you are happy as well, then more power to you!

The tips focus on both you and your workplace, because it is – obviously – the interaction of the two that helps determine your level of contentment.

I’ve learned lots about finding meaning at work in my 25 years of law teaching and talking to students. And, as I thought about this column, I also recently spoke to Nancy Levit, a law professor at UMKC who is the co-author of The Happy Lawyer and The Good Lawyer.  She’s often asked to provide guidance on finding meaning at work.

First, look at your job itself and think about how your job is structured. One important part of a job is being able to exercise some autonomy and some control over what you do.  In my first job after law school, I worked in a large organization, literally pushing papers, with a boss who didn’t seem to value what I was doing and with co-workers who were as bored as I was. Every night, I came home and cried for an hour. (My boyfriend soon realized that he shouldn’t try to talk to me until after I had finished my daily cry.) I needed the work, so I didn’t quit immediately, but, after the first month, I started looking for a new job. I also tried to figure out where I could find some autonomy and control during the day. Because I wasn’t busy all the time, I started taking an exercise class at the nearby Y during the day. I learned as much as possible about the industry in which I was working, even though that wasn’t (to my disappointment) directly relevant to what I was doing on a daily basis. I organized my desk – repeatedly. I learned new computer skills. I found a new job as quickly as possible, working for an organization whose goals I believed in – and which gave me the freedom to make more decisions about just how I would get through all of the required work.

Second, look at the quality of relationships at your workplace. If you’re surrounded by happy people, chances are you’re more likely to be happy yourself. There’s strong research to support that happy people will probably be connected to other happy people. By studying participants in the Framingham Heart Study, which has been going on for 70 years,  researchers found that happiness is not just based on your experiences but also on whether people around you are happy as well. They speculate that happiness strengthens the bonds between people.   And if you’re happy, not only are your friends likely to be happy, but so are your friends’ friends! Levit points out that you may know a “Debbie Downer,” but if you instead hang out with more positive people, then you’re more likely to feel positive yourself, and so will your friends. Happiness is contagious and you can catch it.

Third, so long as you’re looking at the people around you, don’t think about how much they are earning – at least if it is more than you are. Levit reminds me of the studies of Olympic athletes. While those who win gold medals are happy, the surprise is that those who win bronze medals are happier than those who win silver. That’s probably because the bronze medalists are happy to have won something and thus compare themselves to athletes not on the podium (a downward comparison); the silver medalists look up at the gold medal winners and think “that could have been me.” The lesson for those of us who will never win an Olympic medal? Look at how your own situation compares to other people who are less fortunate than you are. Be content with the larger cubicle rather than angry that you don’t have an office with a door – and work towards getting that office with a door that can be shut and towards not being jealous of those who have that door. (Of course, if there are legally-actionable reasons that you don’t have that door, then do something about it!) For bonus points, give some assistance to people who are less fortunate than you are, and enjoy the dopamine blast that comes from nurturing other people.

There’s much more to be said about finding meaning at work, and I encourage you to continue to explore this topic, regardless of how much contentment you feel on Monday morning


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