How to Not Be Miserable at Work

UPDATED: October 22, 2019
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2017

Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski has made a living out of studying how the mental conceptions we have of our jobs affect performance. After many years and hundreds of interviews with workers in every conceivable profession, she has found that employees have one of three “work orientations,” or mindsets about our work. We view our work as a Job, a Career or a Calling.

  • People with a “job” see work as a chore and their paycheck as the reward. They work because they have to and constantly look forward to the time they can spend away from their job.
  • By contrast, people who view their work as a career work not only out of necessity, but also to advance and succeed. They are invested in their work and want to do well.
  • Finally, people with a calling view work as an end in itself; their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards, but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on their personal strengths, and gives them meaning and purpose. Unsurprisingly, people with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding, but work harder and longer because of it. And as a result, these are the people who are generally more likely to get ahead.

Related: Answer 6 Questions to Reveal Your Life Purpose

For those who see their work as a calling, this is great news. Those who don’t though, needn’t despair. Wrzesniewski’s most interesting finding is not just that people see their work in one of these three ways, but that it fundamentally doesn’t matter what type of job one has. She found that there are doctors who see their work only as a job, and janitors who see their work as a calling. In fact, in one study of 24 administrative assistants, each orientation was represented in nearly equal thirds, even though their objective situations (job descriptions, salary and level of education) were nearly identical.

What this means is that a calling orientation can have just as much to do with mindset as it does with the actual work being done. In other words, unhappy employees can find ways to improve their work life that don’t involve quitting, changing jobs or careers, or going off to find themselves. Organizational psychologists call this “job crafting,” but in essence, it involves simply adjusting one’s mindset. As Wrzesniewski says, “new possibilities open for the meaning of work” simply by the way “it is constructed by the individual.”

How does this work? Well, if you can’t make actual changes to your daily work, ask yourself what potential meaning and pleasure already exist in what you do. Imagine two janitors at the local elementary school. One focuses only on the mess he must clean up each night, while the other believes that he is contributing to a cleaner and healthier environment for the students. They both undertake the same tasks every day, but their different mindsets dictate their work satisfaction, their sense of fulfillment and ultimately how well they do their jobs.

Related: 6 Mindset Shifts That Will Improve Your Life

In my consulting work with companies, I encourage employees to rewrite their “job description” into what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a “calling description.” I have them think about how the same tasks might be written in a way that would entice others to apply for the job. The goal is not to misrepresent the work they do, but to highlight the meaning that can be derived from it. Then I ask them to think of their own personal goals in life. How can their current job tasks be connected to this larger purpose? Researches have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with greater meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values. The more we can align our daily tasks with personal vision, the more likely we are to see work as a calling.

Try this exercise:

Turn a piece of paper horizontally, and on the left hand side write down a task you’re forced to perform at work that feels devoid of meaning. Then ask yourself: What is the purpose of this task? What will it accomplish? Draw an arrow to the right and write this answer down. If what you wrote still seems unimportant, ask yourself again: What does this result lead to? Draw another arrow and write this down. Keep going until you get to a result that is meaningful to you. In this way, you can connect every small thing you do to the larger picture, to a goal that keeps you motivated and energized. If you’re a law professor and you hate administrative work, draw your arrow until you can connect it to something you do care about, such as providing a new generation of young lawyers with the resources they need to succeed.

Chip Conley, an innovative hotelier, uses a similar strategy to engage his employees. He likes to tell each one: “Forget about your current job title. What would our customers call your job title if they described it by the impact you have on their lives?” When you make these larger connections, your mundane tasks not only become more palatable, but you perform them with far greater dedication, and see greater returns in performance as a result.

Related: 5 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Mindset in 20 Minutes

Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.