Identifying whether or not you are happy is simple enough. Understanding why and what to do about it is another story altogether. Through work and life we often delay making changes we think would make us happier because we tell ourselves to wait for the “right time.” But what if the right time is now? And what if you can figure out how to address your unhappiness and start to move forward?
Annie McKee is a best-selling author, respected academic, speaker, and sought-after advisor to top global leaders. She is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, and has co-authored numerous Harvard Business Review books, including Resonant Leadership, Primal Leadership, and Becoming a Resonant Leader. Her latest book is, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendships.
McKee explains that through her research, she realized that the key to finding happiness at work, is to first acknowledge that we deserve it. Secondly, she says, we need to stop blaming leaders or work cultures for our unhappiness, because we have to take on some of the responsibility for our own well-being. “Take the ‘Overwork Trap’, for example,” she says, “Overwork is our modern disease. A lot of us work all the time, and this is particularly true, ironically, for people who love our jobs. It’s really hard to turn off, and couple that with access to technology and the demands of our workplaces, and we can find ourselves burning out in very short order, even if we’re strong and resilient.” She goes on to say that while loving your work is great, if you’re working constantly then it’s only a matter of time before it becomes unfulfilling. “We’ve got to find some way to ensure that we can renew ourselves,” she advises.
McKee discusses the second happiness trap, the ‘Should Trap.’ She described it as doing what is expected of us, or what is deemed ‘most practical,’ instead of following our passions. “I’ve seen too often where the ‘should’’s in the workplace really do tamp down our creativity, our innovation, and frankly makes us show up as inauthentic and putting our game face on rather than being who we really are,” she explains, “That has real implications for our effectiveness because you can’t do that for too long before you start feeling resentful.” McKee encourages people to follow their real passions, emphasizing that while you may need to make compromises, in the long run you serve your overall happiness instead of expectations that have been placed on you.
“Another happiness trap is what I call the ‘Ambition Trap’. In working with managers and leaders, you’ve probably seen all too often that individual for whom the goal is the goal, right? Each new goal is a new challenge and it sounds really exciting, and for a while it is. That next promotion, that next new job, that next bonus. The problem is that year in and year out when we’re constantly seeking that next goal, and when they’re fairly short-term and they’re really about achievement and not true meaning or following our passion, it can feel really empty after a while.” McKee says that a consequence of ambition can be hyper-competition and one-upmanship. The latter can quickly become toxic in the workplace, and affects those who work around you.
“Another topic that I talk about when I talk about happiness traps is [the] money [trap]. Listen, we all need money to live. We decide on a certain lifestyle or we want a certain lifestyle, and we strive for that and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.” While McKee understands the importance of providing for ourselves, she points out that people often stay in unhappy situations because ‘the money is good.’ In the end, she explains, it’s never really about the money: “It’s fear, fear of insecurity, and money is often a proxy for success, and we’re afraid that if we give it up somehow we’re going to fail. You go down that route of insecurity and fear, and well, that’s the antithesis of happiness now, isn’t it?”
Finally, McKee describes the ‘Helplessness Trap.’ “You know, ‘It’s their fault. They did it to me. If it weren’t for that horrible colleague or that boss or that team member I’d be fine, but I can’t do anything. There’s nothing I can do.’ That is soul destroying.” McKee went on to describe the helplessness trap as one that makes us feel as though we have no power over any element in our work life, and that can have major consequences, “…it can lead to real problems, mental health issues, depression, all sorts of things.” She says the best way to try emerging from this trap comes from starting a dialogue with managers and wielding the power you do have: “…have the conversation with that manager about getting you on some new projects or doing some things that are more engaging and exciting for you before you do get trapped by a feeling of helplessness.”
The five happiness traps: overwork, “should”, ambition, money, and helplessness, can also work in severe combinations. Throughout your career you might encounter all of these issues in one degree or another, but as with all traps, there is always a way to climb out. Become aware of what holds you back, and make a decision on how to move forward. How are you trapped?
Contributing Author: Kevin Kruse is Founder of LEADx.org an online learning company that offers free world-class leadership training anytime, anywhere.