5 Questions That’ll Help You Pinpoint Why You’re Unhappy at Work

We’re all on an endless quest for happiness, aren’t we?

And there are certainly career benefits to pursuing this endeavor. Harvard Business Review reports that happy people are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, and are three times more creative than their peers.

There are countless habits and hacks that can help, including exercise, expressing gratitude, or starting a side project, but how do you know what will really make you feel happy in your career?

When I was in college, I stressed a lot about whether the career I chose would be fulfilling.
I’d seen plenty of people who were miserable in their jobs, and I wanted none of that. As I sought advice from friends and family, I was frequently told I should “do something I love” or “pursue my passion.” None of that advice resonated though because I didn’t yet know what I loved, and I worried that I’d never figure it out.

My path hasn’t been a straight line, and I’ve had my fair share of setbacks, but I’ve learned a lot along the way.

By asking myself the following five questions throughout my career, I’ve been able to pinpoint causes of my discontent and determine what changes I needed to make to be happy.

1. Have You Decided to Be Happy?

According to Neil Pasricha, author of The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything, most people think if they do great work and become a big success then they’ll be satisfied. But in his research, Pasricha found that the equation is actually backward—if we’re content, then we’ll do great work and become successful. Happiness comes first, not last.

I once had a job I didn’t like. Each night I would come home and tell my wife all the things that bothered me about it. I interviewed at several other companies, hoping I’d find a new job. But when all of the positions fell through, I was forced to make a decision. I could remain unhappy in my current job, or I could choose to make the most of the situation. It wasn’t easy, but when I made a proactive decision, things improved quickly and new opportunities opened up.

It may be counterintuitive, but if you think having a successful career will make you happy, you have it backwards. Become happy first; success will follow.

2. Are You Learning and Developing?

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the need to match the right amount of challenge with the appropriate amount of skill. Too much challenge and you become frustrated; too little, and you get bored.

When we’re working on something just beyond our current abilities, we can experience a genuinely satisfying state of consciousness called flow. And the more we experience flow at work, the happier we’ll be.

Think about your current job. Are you restless, or are you regularly stretched just beyond your level? If you’re not growing at the rate you want to, what can you do to keep learning? In my experience, it’s hard to be genuinely fulfilled at work when we’re stagnant.

3. Are You Leveraging Your Strengths?

While we often focus our efforts on developing weaknesses, performance guru Marcus Buckingham argues that top performers excel not by focusing on their deficiencies, but on their strengths. According to Buckingham, “Your strengths are the work activities that consistently make you feel productive, energized, and engaged.” It’s not enough to simply be good at something, you also need to enjoy the activity.

While we may not have full autonomy over our schedule, finding a way to leverage our strengths in the workplace will make us happier.

4. Are You Surrounded by People You Like and Respect?

I once interviewed at an investment bank and was taught a great lesson by one of the managing directors. He had worked as a venture capitalist before becoming a banker, so I asked him why he made the switch. He replied, “I’ve found in my career that the people I work with are far more important than my job. It doesn’t really matter what I’m doing if I’m surrounded by great people.”

I ended up joining this firm, and though my day-to-day responsibilities were identical to the prior company, I was so much better off. Working with awesome people makes all the difference.

5. Do You Spend Your Time on the Things Which Are Most Important?

Clayton Christensen’s book, How Will You Measure Your Life? offers a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. He teaches, “You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your strategy.”

Christensen argues that the single most important factor in our long-term happiness is the relationships we have with our family and friends. I learned this a few years into my career when 80-hour weeks made it tough to see my wife and our one-year old. I’d been telling myself that they were my top priority, but I kept putting off making time for what mattered.

When I started to realize the role this behavior played in my unhappiness, I started looking for a new job. A few months later I landed a position that allowed me to spend more time on the things which were most important to me.

If you answered no to any of these questions, don’t stress. Sometimes we have to endure periods of frustration to reach our long-term goals. It’s not as easy as up and quitting.

Do what you can to learn and develop your skills, to recognize and play to your strengths, to surround yourself with great people. Instead of being resigned to a job that’s unfulfilling, see which of these questions you can start answering yes to—even if it takes you baby steps to get there.

Because honestly, life’s too short to hate your career. You owe it to yourself to do something you love.


This piece was originally published by The Muse.

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