Why do we devote so much effort to being happier in our personal lives, but accept that work sucks?

Americans are stressed and disengaged. Many of us complain about Mondays; we TGIF. We drag ourselves to the office and wait for the clock to strike 5 p.m., but we think that’s all normal. 

“We’ve sometimes lost our zest for our jobs and accepted working as a sort of long commute to the weekend,” writes London Business School professor Daniel M. Cable in his new book, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. “It’s not meaningful or exciting, but that’s why they call it work, right?”

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Our indifference to work is biological, Cable explains. The dopamine circuit in our brains—the “seeking system”—generates interest, curiosity, and excitement, and it’s linked to intrinsic motivation. But thanks to employers who try to motivate us with money and punishment, who keep us confined to specific but repetitive tasks, our seeking system doesn’t get activated most of the time.

Cable’s book aims to bust our zombie-like attitude toward work. He wants to convince readers that a different vision of 9-5 is possible—and he offers a variety of specific, simple activities we can do to rediscover our enthusiasm.

Share your best self

If work seems to bring out the worst in you or others, one way to combat that is to reflect on the best.

The Best Self activity, developed by researcher Laura Roberts and her colleagues, involves telling a story about when you were at your best—when you displayed the qualities that you most cherish. In the book, for example, one employee talks about helping his nephew with math homework, bringing calm and empathy to the boy’s frustration.

When employees do this exercise during orientation, Cable explains, they activate their seeking systems—and afterward they tend to perform better, make fewer errors, and stay at the company longer. That’s because they feel more authentic at work, able to be themselves and share their perspectives and strengths.

You can also share stories about your coworkers’ best selves, and this version of the activity may be even more impactful. “[It expands] people’s views of themselves,” Cable writes. “Just as a fish doesn’t know that it’s wet, we don’t always know our strengths because they seem so natural and normal to us.” 

Use your strengths

Once we’ve identified some of our best qualities, then we can put them to use.

In the Use Your Strengths exercise, employees identify what their strengths are—from honesty to social intelligence to judgment—and then find a novel way to use them each day for a week. Research suggests that this practice can help people feel happier, more alive, and less depressed. A Gallup poll of 1.2 million employees found that the more people use their strengths at work, the more likely they are to be energetic, laugh and smile, learn interesting things at work, and have an excellent quality of life.

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Recognizing and leveraging strengths seem particularly important for teams with diverse members, Cable notes. When people on a diverse team feel more valued and respected, they offer more opinions, and teams learn and perform better. When an entire organization focuses on cultivating strengths, it can have ripple effects on customer and employee engagement, safety, and profits.

Invent your own job title

What if your job title were “Heralder of Happy News” or “Duchess of Data”? Would that change the way you felt about work?

In fact, research suggests that it might. In one of my favorite activities in the book, employees invent their own whimsical and meaningful job titles, focusing on their values, talents, and contributions. The COO becomes the Minister of Dollars and Sense; the administrative assistant becomes the Goddess of Greetings.

This tiny shift can help you feel less emotionally exhausted even when your job is demanding, because it allows you to express your identity and feel more comfortable communicating with others. When groups were challenged to build a spaghetti tower—a test of teamwork—the ones who had created and shared unique job titles performed better.

Change your story

Rewriting your job title is a way of taking control of your identity—and another way to do this is to change your story about work.

As Cable explains, people have an internal narrative describing what they do for a living, which ranges from the “how” to the “why.” For example, I might say that I write and edit (the “how”), or that I help people live happier, more meaningful lives (the “why”). Although our “how” may be uninspiring, focusing on the “why” could give deeper significance to our work.

“The same behaviors and activities take on very different meaning to us depending on the stories we tell ourselves about what we are doing,” Cable writes. “When we personally understand and believe in the why of our actions, we have greater resilience and stamina when the going gets tough.”

See your impact

To understand the “why” of what we do, it helps to see your impact on others firsthand.

That was the lesson that researcher Adam Grant learned in one of his famous studies, where he invited call center employees to meet a scholarship recipient who was benefitting from the funds they had raised. The month after this brief encounter, they spent over 40 percent more time on the phone and raised over 70 percent more money. 

“Purpose is not something logical and rational,” writes Cable. “It needs to be felt.”

Cultivate a learning mindset

The drive to perform—to prove ourselves in the eyes of others—can be anxiety-provoking. But what if we approached work as a learning opportunity?

Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018, 224 pages)

When we feel safe to play and experiment at work, we tend to be more intrinsically motivated and more resilient, Cable explains. And we don’t sacrifice the bottom line, either. For example, salespeople who focus on learning tend to sell even more than their counterparts who focus on achievement.

To hone your own learning mindset, set goals to learn or improve rather than to achieve a certain outcome—like holding more productive meetings rather than winning Manager of the Year. Cable suggests that companies carve out specific time for play and experimentation—like hackathons, where employees take a day or two to develop totally new ideas, prototype them, and pitch them to the group. Humble leaders can also inspire a learning mindset in others.

The early experiments with Cable’s suggested activities have mostly been in white-collar professions or among students, so it remains to be seen how they would work in other settings. But in general, Alive at Work offers good news for people suffering from stress or boredom at work. It tells us that those feelings are normal—rooted in biology, how our brains are responding to the modern work environment—and that we can change them through a few simple actions. By taking steps to express our true selves, experiment, and connect with our purpose at work, we can learn to love what we do (or at least like it a little more).

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