How to be happy at work by playing to your strengths

How to be happy at work is a question many of us grapple with. I saw a film recently, Rosalie Blum, that explored this question in helpful ways.

Rosalie is a baby boomer who has experienced more than her fair share of disappointments in life. She runs a convenience shop, sings in a choir, and lives an extremely muted life on the fringes of the city. One day, a lonely young man starts following her, and Rosalie’s life suddenly becomes way more interesting. Rather than be alarmed at her stalker, Rosalie enlists the help of her niece, Aude, to follow the stranger to find out who this guy is and what he wants.

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Millenial Aude is a university drop-out whose favorite pastime is sleeping all day. Without any ambition and tons of time on her hands, she seems a perfect candidate for this job. Little does Aude realize how much her life will be transformed as a result of stalking the stalker.

In fact, throughout the course of the film, both Rosalie and her niece become reacquainted with what gives them joy. Once they both reconnect with that, their lives and their outlook on the world improve significantly. The result is happiness, though in a most unconventional way.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness

The lesson we take away from this film is that in order to be happy we must do what makes us happy. Rosalie had more than enough money to be happy, but she wasn’t. Aude had more time than most, and yet, she wasn’t happy either. Contrary to popular misconceptions, endless amounts of time or money don’t buy happiness. Why is that?

The reason is discussed in a Ted Talk by psychologist Mihaly Csikczentmihalyi where he refers to a 43-year-long study on the connection between economic growth and happiness. In this study, it was confirmed that money does not buy happiness. Specifically, it was revealed that only 30 per cent of the people surveyed said they were happy. This means 70 per cent of the people surveyed were unhappy – even though the personal income for the vast majority of them had doubled or tripled in that same period.

So, if money isn’t what makes us happy, Csikczentmihalyi wanted to know what does. After 40 years of studying this question, he came to the conclusion that people are happiest when they do things that give their lives meaning and that felt worth doing – even if they didn’t receive any money for it.

Get Into The Flow of Your Passion

Csikczentmihalyi calls this condition being in a state of ‘flow.’ An example of this state in the film Rosalie Blum is when Aude is taking and developing photographs. When she does, she is completely absorbed in the process. Similarly, a CEO can experience this flow when she’s immersed in doing what she does best. In Csikczentmihalyi’s book Good Business, Anita Roddick, founder of BodyShop, puts it this way, “Look for your passion. What makes you excited? What turns you on? . . . When you spend 95% of your life in a work environment, it can’t be dour.”

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The importance of doing work you love as a pathway to happiness is further explored by business consultant Marcus Buckingham. In a video of his, he talks about the startling statistic that an estimated 83 per cent of people are unhappy at their job. This is, according to Buckingham, because they are in environments that do not allow them to play to their strengths. Playing to your strengths means you are, as Csikczentmikhalyi puts it, in a state of “flow.” During this state, the world falls away, time is suspended, and you feel as though you are doing vital work.

Play to Your Strengths

It is a sad and startling statistic to realize that less than 20 per cent are happy in their jobs. Surprisingly, though, their happiness doesn’t stem from doing what they’re good at. According to Buckingham, it’s as a result of doing things that make them feel strong. Going one step further, his definition of strength is an activity that leaves you feeling strong after you do it.

For example, my best mark in high school was in accounting. Logic would dictate that as my strength, and that I should go into that field, right? But I did not because although it felt good to get high marks, what really made my heart sing was creative writing – creating stories that revealed the world in new ways – helping others see the world and themselves in new ways – enlarging the capacity in others to understand and appreciate this wondrous world of which we’re a part.

Put another way, I feel much stronger after I write an article of which I’m proud rather than after completing my taxes. See the difference? For you, it might be the opposite. The key here is to identify your strengths and then look for opportunities that allow you to use and express those strengths. When you do, you’ll experience that delectable state of being called flow, where you are all-consumed with the work you’re doing. Then you realize what real happiness is: doing work you love, that makes you feel strong, and lets you share your gifts with the world.

What about you? Are you playing to your strengths in life and business or not? Post a comment below to let me know.


Elizabeth Johnston is a published author, podcaster, and creativity coach who helps people gain clarity in their business messaging and facilitates their self-expression through writing workshops and private coaching.

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