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The Secret to Happiness at Work




As I’ve worked through my own burnout and coached other physicians experiencing similar situations, I’ve thought, read, and talked a lot about happiness at work. And while I am a firm believer that it is not my job’s job to make me feel happy (or fulfilled, or successful, or worthy) I do find that understanding the primary drivers of workplace happiness has been helpful.


It turns out that there are many studies of workplace happiness, and that conclusions are similar across cultures and fields. Most experts agree that happiness at work is related to three main factors:


  1. Meaning – connection to a purpose, shared values, culture

  2. Efficacy - a sense of accomplishment, the belief that your work makes a difference

  3. Relationships – friendship, positive relationships


When I recall the work experiences when I’ve felt the happiest, I can easily fit them into this framework; the satisfaction of working as part of a well-functioning team during a resuscitation, the pride in making a difficult diagnosis, the honor when a teenage patient feels safe confiding in me or a toddler laughs at my silly joke and lets me examine her ears, the joy of watching my continuity-clinic residents graduate.


So how do we maximize happiness at work?

Certainly, sometimes the circumstances of a toxic work environment need to change in order for you to find shared values, a greater sense of efficacy, and more positive relationships. You might need to negotiate a change in roles or responsibilities, to set boundaries and say “no” to tasks that are not in alignment, or to change jobs all together. But, the vast majority of the time, the most impact comes not from changing the circumstances of your job but from recognizing the joy and happiness that are already present in your current work environment.


Human brains tend to find what they’re looking for; if you intentionally take note of the small nuggets of happiness, you will start to notice them more easily and more often. Just the like filter of burnout highlights the parts of our lives that feel frustrating, stressful, or unfulfilling, the practice of noticing happiness will highlight the pieces that bring joy, connection, and peace.


At a time when I was feeling completely overwhelmed and burned out as a primary care pediatrician, my coach challenged me to write down one thing that went well after every single patient encounter. At first, I honestly thought she was nuts. But I relented and gave it a shot - I carried a pile of 3x5 cards in my coat pocket for a week and took 10 seconds in the hallway between each patient. And it turns out to have been one of the more impactful things I’ve done for my workplace happiness. At first it was difficult after some encounters to think of anything that had gone well – all I could recall was the awkward silence or the angry mother or the sense of urgency because I was running behind. But, with time, my brain did start to notice the nuggets of happiness more easily. I kept these cards and here are some of the things that I wrote:


  • I listened without interrupting while that mom cried about her baby’s (lack of) sleep

  • That teenager almost laughed at my joke

  • That family came to clinic after 3 previous no-shows

  • I was only 15 minutes late to start that visit

  • I heard a new murmur

  • That dad thanked me, and I think he really meant it

  • That child’s rash got better with my treatment

  • I helped that baby to latch, and mom said it didn’t hurt


Today, I extend this challenge to you.

Depending on the specifics of your job, the details may differ – but I challenge you to start taking note of the nuggets of happiness in your work. Can you recognize times where you feel connected to shared values? When you feel as if your work makes a difference? When your relationships at work bring you joy? Write them down, send them to me if you’re so inclined. Once you start looking, do they come to you more easily?


I love helping physicians reclaim their joy. If you’re ready to take this work deeper, reach out and schedule a free consult to learn more about how we can work together. www.ilselarsoncoaching.com/contact