Workplace Wisdom

Can You Be Happy at Work? Should You Be?

Consider these scenarios, each from a different organization, and the unfortunate, but logical, conclusions that can be drawn from each one:

  • A lowest-level manager is disparaged by the other managers in her group because her enthusiastic demeanor suggests to them that she’s on the “wrong” side of an interoffice political hatchet-fest. Unfortunate conclusion: All the “good” people are resentful and angry, so a happy person must be wrong and therefore “bad.”
  • A senior exec tells a mid-level exec the equivalent of: “You’re not supposed to walk around feeling good when I’m telling you that things are not good.” Unfortunate conclusion: It’s not safe to be happier than your boss.
  • An upbeat senior executive is chivvied unceasingly by other executives who believe that the current economic conditions dictate doom; the optimist’s refusal to accept a forecast of eventual doom is taken as a possible sign of incompetence and a definite sign of unreality. Unfortunate conclusion: If you’re happy when things are bad, you’re a hopeless romantic. Or a fool. Or possibly both. The smart money is always on the side of failure. When the going gets tough, the tough give up. Only cockeyed optimists persist.
  • A pleasant and cheerful frontline worker is treated as a “rate-buster” by his peers because they are fearful that management will read his apparent happiness as a signal that pay increases are unnecessary. Unfortunate conclusion: Happy people don’t understand the “facts” of work life. Or they’re too selfish to tone themselves down for the sake of others.


And here’s my own anecdotal data: On Monday mornings, when I take the elevator in my office building, in addition to my usual habit of greeting everyone I meet, I’m often humming or extra smiley, because I love to go to work. People who don’t know me (and even some who do) shake their heads in disbelief — they’re dragging themselves in to work. It’s true that I’m my own boss, which counts for a lot. But it’s still sad to think that so many people wish, so often and so publicly, that they didn’t have to go to work.

Given how much Americans are supposed to believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention the profit motive, shouldn’t work and happiness naturally go together? It seems irrational that when work and happiness don’t go together, people perceive conditions as normal — instead of the other way around.

Are you happy to go to work, to be at work, and to do the majority of your work? If not, why not? Wouldn’t you like to be? Do you think it’s a realistic possibility?

Onward and upward,


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4 thoughts on “Can You Be Happy at Work? Should You Be?”

  1. Hi Liz,
    Great post.
    It’s amazing how many people accept work as drudgery. It’s just not something I buy into. If you’re not happy, do something about it. I’m not saying that people should just quit and throw responsibility out the door, but you can plan for a change. Start saving money. Find your passion. Identify fields or companies where you can apply your skills and be in a work culture that will suit you. Begin chasing those companies, figure out where you can add value to their work and go after it with everything you have. Start calling all your friends and key collaborators who will support your efforts and let them know what you’re looking for.
    I could write a lot on this, in particular what it would take to transform the company you currently work for if you don’t want to change jobs, but that’s a whole post in itself.
    Keep writing, always love to hear what you have to say, and the thoughts you stimulate in an already excited brain.

    • Richard, these are just wonderful comments. It’s fantastic to be clear (and excited) about being the mover — the driver — of your own life. You know I like a mixture of action and thought — and the proportions of the mixture are different for everyone.

      Some people are willing to “drudge” because they have obligations; some to support a different aspect of their lives (artistic expression, or social change, or luxury even — you can “drudge” at a very high financial level).

      I love the idea of planning, and first of looking, wide-eyed, to see what all the alternatives and opportunities are — and then being thoughtful about which opportunities suit you best.

      Keep stirring the pot for a while — just be sure to taste the soup from time to time!


  2. How about a post about the problem of employees complaining about customers and how and why to break that habit…

    • It’s an interesting topic, Jennie, because there has to be a safe way for employees to express their own frustration when they’ve got it, or there’s always the risk that they suppress too much — either they can get all rote and robotic, or they might actually erupt over some insignificant detail. I’ll think about productive ways to handle it…


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