Do you really love your job? Are you truly engaged in your work? If you are able to answer “yes” to both questions, you’re in the minority. Less than 30% of millennials responding to a 2016 Gallup survey indicated they felt engaged at work and 16% even said they were actively disengaged.
Now, to improve your feelings about work, it might require some changes — like a promotion or pay bump — or even a big job switch, especially early in your career. But the truth for at least some is that sometimes the problem is not the job but your own attitudes, and being more satisfied must start with you. You might discover greater success is just a matter of better channeling and projecting positivity about work: the “happiness advantage.”
The good news: You can engender a more positive attitude just by changing the way you think about aspects of your job. “We all create our own reality, every day,” Lisa Marie Bobby, a life coach and clinical director at Growing Self, told Mic in an interview. “Focusing on what you want and then taking small action steps every day to attain it will move you forward.”
How, specifically, can you do that? Here are five smart steps to take to change the way you think of work — so you can feel and project more positivity.
1. Try “pivoting” instead of venting
The average workday is filled with both negative and positive events, but negative events tend to be more memorable — which is one reason why venting or complaining can feel so therapeutic. You may find yourself griping to your co-worker about past frustrations, like your morning commute, or about future challenges you’re dreading, like staying late yet again.
The problem? Even though you think you’re just “getting it off your chest,” people who vent often can get stuck in cycles of negativity. “Too often people are preoccupied with what they don’t want, what they don’t like and what they hope to avoid,” Bobby said. “This mindset leads to churning in a never-ending series of dissatisfying life experiences.”
In fact, Michigan State University researchers found negative-minded workers — those who point out workplace problems — become less productive and more mentally fatigued. The good news? Simple awareness of negative thoughts can be enough to change your mindset and behaviors.
“To change any thinking pattern, start by cultivating awareness about ‘the usual suspects’ that float into your mind when your thinking is not helpful,” Bobby advised. “This self-awareness will help you stop unhelpful thinking and replace it with something more positive.” Bobby recommends deciding how you want to feel, identifying the thoughts that support the feelings you want to experience and deciding what internal dialogues will support your positivity.
For example, instead of stewing over criticism you received during a performance review, focus on how to improve next quarter. And instead of feeling frustration over your overly-busy schedule, pivot your daily strategy and work habits to become more productive — so you can leave the office before the sun goes down. You might even try to talk to your boss about negotiating different hours or a more flexible work situation.
2. Find mantras and motivators
Emerging theories on neuroplasticity suggest your brain and the emotions it produces actually can change over time, with practice: “You can train your brain,” Bobby said. “The way you think is malleable and under your control.”
In one study, 10- to 14-year-old girls with a family history of depression who viewed negative images were able to dampen the activation of the amygdala — the part of the brain active when you feel strong emotions and that over-activates in people at risk for depression — by thinking positive thoughts while looking at the negative pictures.
Now, overcoming your instincts toward negativity can be challenging. “While your brain is malleable, thinking patterns only change through sustained effort and repetition of new ideas,” Bobby said. That’s why, she said, you’ll be best off if you intentionally and actively practice positive thinking — by identifying motivators and mantras and rehearsing those inspiring thoughts on your commute to work, posting them on a sticky note on your computer screen, and diligently turning to them when you feel unhelpful thoughts invading.
“Engaging in one brief positive exercise every day for as little as three weeks can have a lasting impact,” Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage wrote at Harvard Business Review.
3. Do a “three good things” intervention
Need a quicker fix — and truly simple way to change your mindset? Come home from work each day and jot down three good things that happened on the job in a notebook. Then rinse and repeat for the rest of the month.
When employees of outpatient family practice clinics were asked to complete a daily survey asking workers to write about how and why work events had gone well, writing about three good things was sufficient to make a change in perceptions of work life — and both reduce stress and improve health, according to research published in the Academy of Management Journal.
This change created a positive feedback loop because thinking about lucky events and happy experiences led to sharing more of those good things with others, which resulted in stronger connections.
4. Recalibrate your expectations
Perhaps you have heard the aphorism: “Happiness equals reality minus expectations”? Indeed, many people have a specific set of expectations about their job, or a “psychological contract,” as Organizational Behavior describes it. If the unwritten expectations making up your psychological contract aren’t fulfilled, this will cause you to experience a contract “breach” that leaves you dissatisfied.
Of course, if your job is truly different than what you were led to expect when you took the gig, it may be time to explore whether a new career is your best option. But, if your job is letting you down simply because it’s not living up to your more unrealistic expectations, you may just be perceiving a breach. Beware of the confirmation bias that tells you you aren’t being treated well — if you tend to believe you’re never treated well, for example.
Met expectations are linked to higher job satisfaction, so looking for ways the job is living up to what was promised can improve job satisfaction, according to research published in the Journal of Business. Recalibrating expectations can help you in another crucial way — particularly if you are very self-critical and are feeling unhappy because you are not living up to your own standards.
In that case, try to be easier on yourself. If you are overwhelmed by new management responsibilities, for instance, reach out for help and see if your boss would cover management training. Taking action will help you bridge the disconnect between expectations and reality.
5. Fake it ’til you make it
If all else fails and you still aren’t feeling thrilled about your work life, you can come across as positive — even if you need to “fake it until you make it.”
“Positivity is projected through the way people experience you,” Bobby said. “Your ability to stay calm, optimistic and focused on the big picture will not only help you have a more satisfying day-to-day experience. Others will also perceive you as more competent, more trustworthy and will be more likely to view you as a leader.” Once you are treated in this more positive manner, it can manifest in how you feel and behave naturally.
Smiling, putting energy into your voice and showing confidence and enthusiasm in posture and movement are all ways you can come across as a more positive, competent person to your boss and co-workers, Bobby advised.
Here’s Mic’s guide to projecting confidence. Remember: Your efforts to project positivity just might pay off and help you land a promotion or recognition at work — so that you actually do end up feeling great about your career.
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