Humans often think of happiness as a transitory state—an emotion that ebbs or flows depending on external factors and life circumstances. However, happiness is actually an intentional choice.
No matter the stress of your job, the conflicts within your relationships, the number of looming deadlines, or the burnout of Zoom fatigue, you can still choose happiness. Here’s what science says about becoming happier—plus, a few strategies on how to live, well, happier.
Happiness is a mindset you can cultivate
In a culture that glorifies both production and consumption, the so-called pursuit of happiness can often feel like chasing a positive sensation that never lasts. You are told to set ambitious goals, hustle as much as possible, earn more money, snag that corner office, acquire material comforts, and then enjoy the success of your achievements.
However, as entrepreneur and business consultant Nick Wolny pointed out in a previous Fast Company article, this brand of satisfaction wears off quickly. That’s because authentic, enduring happiness cannot be manufactured with fleeting circumstances. If happiness seems out of reach, it might be time to redefine what happiness actually means to you.
In an excerpt from her recent book, Jenn Lim, author and CEO of the consultancy firm Delivering Happiness, debunks the societal myth around this state of being. Rather than a hedonic view, which associates happiness with feelings of comfort or pleasure, Lim sees it as a mindset of self-actualization. This is more sustainable (and attainable), she wrote, because everyone can determine how self-actualization looks for them.
Creating your own definition of happiness means that external factors can neither increase nor diminish your sense of well-being and satisfaction. Lim referred to this as knowing your purpose—being true to who you are and where your values and priorities lie. When that purpose is secure, difficulties cannot shake your happiness. Likewise, the high cultural premium of success at any cost will not lure you into discontent.
The bottom line: You’re in charge of cultivating an inner mindset of happiness. You can practice this on a daily basis.
The science of happiness in the workplace
Here’s another common societal myth about happiness: It should be every human’s default emotional state. This runs counter to how the brain actually operates, though. Neuroscience research indicates that your brain is wired to seek out both pleasure and survival—two primal instincts that will always compete with each other.
The real biological pursuit of happiness is not about idealizing brief moments of gratification, which are never actually permanent. Rather, it’s about developing intrinsic motivation to find what sustains you long-term. So if the brain is motivated to pursue a goal or achieve an outcome for internal validation (such as self-growth, curiosity, personal challenge) instead of external success (such as accolades, promotions, money), happiness becomes much less fleeting.
How does this link between happiness and motivation translate to the workplace? That’s what a 2020 study from the journal Frontiers in Psychology set out to examine. As the research found, employees with high levels of intrinsic motivation were more satisfied in their roles, which lead to:
- Stronger communication skills
- Increased engagement
- More positive client relationships
- Higher energy, passion, and enthusiasm
- Boosted productivity and efficiency
- Greater organizational commitment
Learning to practice a mindset of inner happiness will benefit both your job and personal life. When satisfaction is not contingent on external circumstances or motivators, you’re free to take situations and interactions in stride as they come, maintaining a balanced perspective and enjoying the work you do.
How to become happier at work and in life
We have established that happiness is an inside job. Now it’s time to figure out how to actually become a happier human in both your professional and personal circles. Here’s a crash course on redefining and creating happiness for yourself.
Let go of your fixation with meaning
The concept of a meaningful life is not inherently a problem—everyone wants their contributions and impact on the world to matter. But in this Fast Company article, author Wendy Syfret argued that an obsessive quest for meaning can make you miserable.
She recommended a less exhausting (albeit controversial) approach: nihilism. This states that “life is meaningless.” This doesn’t mean you are here without a purpose, but rather, you create the narrative that either moves you forward or keeps you stagnant.
If you release the inflated pressure of meaning and allow life to simply unfold with realistic expectations, you’ll feel more rooted in the present instead of overthinking the moment away. Here’s how to make life count, and tap into the happiness that follows, without fixating on the “what it all means.”
- Make time for mindful activities that root you in the now. This can be a journaling ritual, a meditation practice, a walk in nature, a breathing exercise, a workout class, or a deep conversation. This is anything that orients your brain to be and stay in the moment.
- Accept your own smallness in the larger scope of existence. Your presence on Earth matters, but there’s freedom in knowing you are not the center of this universe. So think outside your own experiences or narratives to learn from other perspectives. As a result, you will become a more curious, empathetic, and fulfilled person.
- Know the important difference between value and meaning. The idea of meaning is a symbolic construct, but “value” is the practical knowledge of what you stand for and care about. Values are essential for authentic happiness because they communicate which priorities to focus your time, resources, energy, work, and attention on. If you know and are living by your values, you can find intrinsic happiness in that.
Rethink your relationship with goals
Goals are beneficial in all aspects of life. Without them, you would most likely feel directionless with no focal point to strive for. As crucial as goals are for both career and personal growth, how you approach these goals, however, can short-circuit your happiness.
All too often, we set ruthless goals that aren’t feasible in reality and then label ourselves a “failure” when plans don’t come to fruition. As Wolny pointed out, even when a goal is attainable, the temporary high of accomplishment will fade, leaving a sense of letdown in its wake. But the goal itself is not a problem—it’s your relationship to that goal.
You could continue forcing yourself to achieve at all costs, hit unrealistic performance markers, then ride the endorphins of success until they’re gone. However, there’s a better way, and it will increase your happiness.
This other way is the mindset of grace, clinical psychologist Lindsay Henderson suggested. It’s not a sign of failure to veer offtrack because you have permission and the ability to course correct at any time.
With this newfound grace in mind, here are a few new ways to pursue your goals:
- Break your goals down into a series of micro habits. Attempting an entire behavioral or performance overhaul can seem insurmountable—and often is. Making small, incremental changes over time makes the goal more manageable and feel less stressful. Build micro habits into your routine that will gradually help you reach the macro objective that you’ve set for yourself to get there while feeling happier and more accomplished.
- Think about the words you use to characterize goals. Words have power, so start paying attention to how you talk about goals. Don’t stop there: Swap out negative words for positive ones, according to life-transformation coach Kristin Brownstone. For example, turn “I have to” into “I get to,” or refer to the goal as a form of “play” instead of “work.”
- Be clear on the overarching “why” behind each goal. Remember that connection between purpose and satisfaction? It’s relevant for goal setting too. Determine the reason why a goal matters, who will benefit from it, and what value it can bring to your life (or someone else’s). This will boost your momentum and perseverance because you’re not doing it just to simply accomplish something new. There’s a purpose that you’re emotionally connected to.
- Reward yourself—but don’t rely on this for happiness. It’s normal to feel triumph when you achieve a goal, so celebrate those wins, both large and small. This helps you connect with the feeling of self-actualization we talked about earlier. This strategy comes with a caveat: Don’t allow your internal happiness to hinge on external rewards or affirmations. Use them as supporting players in the game of happiness.
Build mental and emotional resilience
Do you wonder how the natural optimists of this world maintain a balanced, positive outlook despite whatever situation they’re in? This attitude is not a sheer denial of painful emotions or circumstances. Nor is it a chronically upbeat façade. That’s called toxic positivity, which can erode trust, stifle communication, and harm interpersonal dynamics.
The secret to optimism is not manufacturing positive emotions—it’s building resilience. This has become a buzzword in recent years, so let’s define it. Resilience is the mental and emotional fortitude to quickly recover from crises, learn from mistakes, identify growth opportunities, and form healthy coping skills to clear the next hurdle.
Resilience is a major component of happiness and well-being, wrote creative designer Klaus Heesch, in another Fast Company article. Cultivating resilience helped him learn to combat imposter syndrome, fear of failure, comparison to others, and pressure to achieve. With an ability to better manage and understand those limitations, it’s easier to feel happier more consistently.
Here are a few strategies to build your own resilience so you can create more sustainable happiness:
- Believe in your own talents and positive attributes. Self-confidence enables you to challenge doubts or insecurities. It also gives you the emotional security to accept feedback from others without a defensive reaction.
- Be flexible and embrace the inevitability of change. The one constant in life is its unpredictability. So don’t fear or resist change—adapt to this new season as it comes. You will discover opportunities to branch out and evolve.
- Look for reasons to stay both hopeful and grateful. No matter how bleak a situation can feel, remember that no circumstance lasts forever. Hope for a brighter tomorrow will fuel you with the endurance to continue showing up today.
- Build proactive, actionable problem-solving skills. When a conflict arises, don’t react impulsively. Slow down with deep breathing and carve out the space to clear your head, then make a list of practical and rational ways to solve the issue.
- Nurture yourself and invest in healthy relationships. Do not overlook self-care—it’s vital for resilience and happiness. Get adequate sleep, make time for exercise, drink water, and eat nurturing foods. Surround yourself with uplifting relationships. Make time for enjoyable activities and interactions. Once your needs are met, you can face obstacles with renewed energy.
Happiness is an intentional choice, and pursuing it is a consistent practice that may never end—and that’s okay. Happiness is truly in the journey and with this guide in your toolbox, happiness, both in work and life, will no longer feel out of reach.