It’s hard to turn down something that will help you be happier and more successful at work. Activating joy as a fundamental quality of mind and emotions will power a more uplifted and engaged mind. And it can start with a simple shift in our inner narrative.
Here’s an Experiment
Consider your job with this outlook: Work is a drag. I haul myself out of bed every morning. Throughout the day, things won’t go right and there’s a lot of stuff I’m going to have to put up with. And maybe I’m not good enough either. Why haven’t I finally made it to where I thought I’d be at this point in my life? How am I going to put up with work today?
Now imagine showing up for your workday, full of meetings and tasks, with that mindset. How do you feel when you think about it? Probably not so good.
Now take a full breath in, a full exhale out.
Consider your job again with this outlook: Today I choose to go to work. I could, if I really wanted, choose not to go. But for now, it benefits me to go: I can grow, feel purposeful and support myself (and family) financially. There will be opportunities. There will be challenges. Every person I work with is human being. Like me, they have hopes, frustrations, uncertainties and whatever their knowledge and attitudes their background has given them. This job won’t last forever. What would I like to make of today?
Now imagine what your upcoming workday will look like with that mindset. Is there any difference in your feelings and mood? Is there, maybe, a sense of possibility?
Outlook 1, Outlook 2
This experiment invites a shift, from outlook 1 to outlook 2, from an outlook of burden to joy. Whether life and work is fundamentally a burden or a joy is maybe one of the biggest flavors in our life experience.
You can feel the heaviness, bitterness and burden in outlook 1. We all think about things this way sometimes. What does it produce? Complaints. And probably not very creative work.
Normally, we think the only alternative to outlook 1 would be lying to ourselves—trying to superficially emphasize the positive in a way that hints at painting over the ugly parts, which feels fake, unsatisfying. Why do we sometimes feel that our only options in the face of difficulty are 1) to be miserable with reality, or 2) to fake happiness by escaping reality? I think it’s because we feel (I know I often do) that if we let all of the challenges and uncertainties coming ahead of us sink in, they would overwhelm us.
And yet, oddly, it seems to be the other way around: The more we accept our situation, the less we hold our breath, hoping something different will magically appear, and the more freedom and energy we have to work with what we’ve got.
Hence, outlook 2, the joy outlook, begins with acceptance, which is not a kind of permissiveness of our own or others’ bad habits. That would, of course, sabotage a healthy workplace. Instead, it’s a recognition, waking up and seeing our situation instead of avoiding, denying or suppressing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
If acceptance feels unnatural or hard, perhaps it’s because, as Professor Kristin Neff explains in her study Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation, many of us have learned a primary motivation system based on self-rejection, a kind of unconstructive criticism that makes us feel bad so that we try to do better.
Doing this, we divide self against self, one half playing the role of taskmaster, the other half feeling guilty and inadequate. This complex mental feat takes a lot of energy. It’s like having one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes, burning through a lot of our emotional energy reserves and moving forward very little. As Neff found in her research, self-critical motivation systems tend to lead to low-performance behaviors, such as procrastination.
On the other hand, motivation strategies based on acceptance, like outlook 2, lead to more motivation and creativity. We’re not holding our breath waiting for something else; we’re here meeting whatever’s here. No energy is squandered suppressing or denying, and so more mental and emotional bandwidth is available to ask what’s possible.
Outlook 2, the joy outlook, just plain feels better.
Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson has found that cultivating a healthy outlook on life is one of the four pillars of well-being that can be learned through neuroplasticity and practice (the other three: resilience, attention and generosity).
We have a great opportunity to practice bringing joy to our work, and there’s little to lose. As long as we do so mindfully, attentively, with a discerning mind that doesn’t slip toward attempts to fantasize (and, thereby, return to subtly rejecting our realities and challenges).
Give it a try and see for yourself. Next time you start your workday try saying outlook 2 to yourself, or create some variation of it that works for you. Alternatively journaling about any intentions that form as you consider an outlook of joy and acceptance also work. What projects do you intend to work on today? How do you want to show up as a friend and colleague?
There’s nothing to lose. Right?