Wellness Wednesday: Happiness at work

Sarah Gelman on March 18, 2020

Wellness Wednesday - designing your work life

You will spend about one-third of your life working. When you factor in time spent sleeping, it’s safe to say you should make those awake and working hours count. Yet so many of us are unhappy at our jobs. The authors of the #1 New York Times best-selling Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, have written an answer to this problem of our time: Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work.

Burnett and Evans know that you are the creative agent of your own life. In other words, if you’re unhappy in your job, it’s up to you to change it. According to Gallup, approximately 69 percent of American workers are disengaged from their work, and globally that number rises to 85 percent. Designing Your Work Life puts you in the driver’s seat to make change.

During this unprecedented time when many of us are working from home, co-author Bill Burnett took time to answer my questions about pursuing professional happiness and fulfillment.

Sarah Gelman, Amazon Book Review: Nice to meet you! Now, I’m going to confess something. As an introvert, I always thought I’d be both happier and more productive if I was able to work from home. I think I’m now experimenting with your concept of “try stuff,” since many Amazon employees are working remotely. How should I evaluate my happiness—and productivity level—after this experiment?

Bill Burnett: Happiness is what the Martin Seligman and the original positive psychologists were studying, and they found some interesting things. One of their findings is that “what you pay attention to is how you feel.” So a good way to evaluate your happiness is to take a few minutes every day to pay attention to what happened, and reflect on what that means for your happiness. In our book Designing Your Work Life, we have a simple tool for this “noticing” we call the Good Work Journal, which asks you to jot down, every day, three observations:

1. What did I learn today?

2. What did I initiate today?

3. Who did I help today?

These categories are based on the psychology of intrinsic motivation, and positive examples in these categories have been demonstrated to contribute to your happiness and work satisfaction. The Good Work Journal helps raise your awareness of what’s working at work, whether you work at the office or from home. Try it for a week and see if your felt experience of satisfaction and happiness changes.

You write about this endless seeking of more—the “hedonic treadmill.” How much of that is a function of our current society? For instance, my father has had the same job for almost his entire life, and it doesn’t seem like he was searching for more.

The hedonic treadmill, which describes the idea of the fruitless and endless search for more pleasure, has been around a long time. It is sort of the Dark Side of our positive motivation to increase our mastery and competence in the world. Our modern world, with a seemingly endless supply of stimulation via the Internet and social media, has probably made it easier to accidentally find yourself on this treadmill. The warning signs: you are pursuing a goal—a promotion, more money, whatever—simply to attain that little dopamine hit you get when you “ring the bell” or accomplish the goal. The goal has no intrinsic meaning. Do that over and over again, and that’s when you get in trouble.

Your dad, on the other hand, sounds like a pretty grounded guy, one who knew what work was for, and how to be happy with what he had. That is possible today as well, even in a world where having the same job for life is probably not going to happen for most people. The Grant Study, part of the longest running longitudinal study of human health and happiness (it started at Harvard has been running continuously since 1938), has demonstrated that the secret to a long, healthy, and happy life is relationships. Not money, not fame, not good genes or family background. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who ran part of the study, is famous for saying, “The eighty-three years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ”

We couldn’t agree more.

Can you explain the concept of the 7th Day Reflection and how I can integrate that into my routine while also keeping my work life separate from my home life? Is that possible?

Like the Good Work Journal, the 7th Day Reflection is a way of paying attention to our experience in a curated way. We suggest that you take some time, once a week, to review the important moments in the week that you are grateful for. These moments can be from work or from your daily life, and best if they are some of both. Pick one or two, write them down and then reflect on those moments, relive how you felt, and fully savor those feelings. Then reinforce those feelings by writing them down to make sure you remember them. These moments you are grateful for make for great stories, so be sure to share them with friends and family. It is a virtuous cycle of noticing, reflecting and savoring, reinforcing, and storytelling, and it tends to change your experience, your internal story, of how things are going. It’s relatively easy to include in this practice in your weekly routine. You just need to set up some triggers for the behavior—like “When I’m done reading the Sunday paper I always do my 7th Day Reflection.”

I’m going to preface this question by saying that my boss is not a jerk, nor anywhere near that. But that’s a common problem you do hear from people, and it seems insurmountable. What’s your advice when someone says this?

Two things and one caveat—

The caveat first: If your boss is a bully, or a liar, or Harvey Weinstein, and you find yourself in a toxic work environment, get out as soon as you can. Design thinking [problem solving through experimentation and iteration] isn’t magical thinking—if you are in an untenable situation, leave as soon as possible.

Two other ideas:

One: You have more control than you think, even with a boss that doesn’t appreciate you or give you the kind of feedback you want, or is just an unpleasant person. You can still practice mastering your job, you can get feedback from other sources (it doesn’t have to all come from your boss), and you can build a solid network of co-workers who you admire and enjoy working with. No one can stop you from improving the elements of your own job satisfaction.

Two: In a US workforce survey, 25 percent of employees said they would give up their next raise if you would fire their boss! And, remember, some of those employees were bosses, too. So there is a whole lot of dysfunction going on in the workplace, and the person you’re working for is a person who is unhappy with her boss, too. Practice some empathy for other people’s situations, and the designers’ mindset of curiosity (Why is my boss so unhappy?) and reframing (How could I interpret her behavior in a different way?). Try to come up with some simple prototypes to try with your boss, to see if you can get more aligned with the job at hand. Our maxim: there are no “bad” employees or “bad” bosses, just bad “fits.” See if you can improve your mutual fit.

In a world where being busy is a badge of honor, how should we think about being overwhelmed? And what’s the difference between being overwhelmed and burned out?

There is a stark difference between being overwhelmed and being burned out. The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout this way: “Job burnout is a special type of job stress—a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.” So, if find yourself exhausted after work every day for weeks on end, if you can’t sleep, and you suddenly start losing or gaining a lot of weight, you are probably headed for burnout. And if you have started self-soothing by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, you are in real physical and mental danger. You need to see a qualified therapist or doctor and get treated for burnout—it is a diagnosable medical condition.

Now in our current workplace, where being overwhelmed with work has become a perverse badge of honor, it’s good to be able to recognize and name the kind of overwhelm your facing. Not all overwhelm is the same, and if you can categorize it, you can manage it.

There are three kinds of overwhelm, and they have different sources and different solutions:

Hydra Overwhelm:

Hydra (like the nine-headed monster from Greek mythology) is the most common form of overwhelm. This happens because you have too many different responsibilities, you are reporting to too many managers (more than one) or are running too many client projects concurrently. You have to use legacy systems that are cumbersome and poorly designed, and maybe you lack control or are micromanaged in the task you do. And typically you are working in isolation and don’t have the support you need to be successful.

The solution to Hydra Overwhelm is to first document all the stuff you’re doing, then prioritize the list and figure out what small incremental thing you can give away to someone else—the one with the greatest impact and the most probable endorsement from your boss—and give it your best shot. Lather, rinse, repeat—until you get the list down to a manageable size. This will take time, so be persistent.

Happy Overwhelm:

Happy is the second most common form of overwhelm. It is where you just have too many cool things to do, and you have volunteered to do them all. Your job is challenging but fun, the people you work with are great, and the projects you get offered are all high-impact and worth doing. You are just doing too many of them.

The solution to Happy Overwhelm is delegation—which is fundamentally different than just giving tasks away and is easier in Happy than Hydra since the fun, challenging, interesting things that are overwhelming you are attractive to your co-workers. You can very likely give these fun tasks to your colleagues easily. Delegating some cool tasks to others allows you to invest in what’s remaining, and amplifies your impact in the organization. And isn’t impact the reason you took on so many cool things in the first place?


The last flavor of overwhelm is a special case, and you usually find it in organizations facing rapid change or redesign, or start-ups. We call it Hyper-Overwhelm. This is where you are “building the plane” and trying to fly it at the same time. There is very little support infrastructure; in fact, one of your jobs might be to build the support infrastructure. The start-up is having great success and scaling rapidly, and that can mean 50- to 90-hour workweeks—because the “job” is never done.

While this is exhilarating and challenging, it is ultimately exhausting. Being a leader or early team member in a high-growth start-up or business is not for the faint of heart. If this is your form of overwhelm, you need to accept and reframe, and then tell a new story. And you need to start thinking of your day-to-day work as a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself appropriately.

Hyper-Overwhelm is not like Happy Overwhelm, where you can delegate tasks to others, because there’s nobody to delegate to. The key to Hyper-Overwhelm is to first accept that you choose this path, this start-up or company, and that you are not a victim of the situation. Accept that you are going to be in Hyper-Overwhelm for a while, and that is OK. Then reframe your reason for working and tell yourself a new, more generative story. And if you can get others involved in your new story, if you can get your key partners, intimates, and collaborators to join you in temporarily embracing your Hyper-Overwhelm, things will go much more smoothly for everyone.

You’re at a cocktail party and a stranger hears about your work and confesses they’re unhappy at work. What’s your number-one piece of advice?

I would tell that person not to despair, that they have more control over their situation than the think, and that by taking a design approach to their problem they can get unstuck. And that humans are strange animals in that we have what psychologist call intrinsic motivations, things we do just for the satisfaction of doing them. We are intrinsically motivated by autonomy, relatedness, and competence, and the good news is that this system of motivation, which we call the A.R.C. of your career, is independent of your job, your boss, or your company.

Nobody can stop you from exercising your free will and your curiosity. No one “gives” you autonomy, which, at its most basic, is the ability to control some aspects of what we do, who we do it with, and when we do it. You just take it. Relatedness is about connecting to your fellow workers, collaborating on projects, and being empathetic to the needs of those we work with and work for. You don’t need anyone’s approval to be more empathetic on the job. Competence is just what it sounds like. We all want to be good at what we do. We develop our competency by practicing our craft until we have achieved what others would call mastery, and then going on to “out-master” ourselves through even more concerted practice. No one can stop you from getting better at what you do.

Once you realize that your intrinsic motivation are under your control, you never need to feel helpless on the job again.

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