How to Be Happier at Work

Real Simple polled readers on what they need to make their jobs more likable, even fun. Here's a strategy session you'll want to attend.

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Photo by R. Kikuo Johnson

You know the type: the worker bee who waltzes into the office with an eager smile and, perhaps even more impressively, walks out at the end of the day looking just as jolly. But according to a Gallup poll last year, these happy workers are a rare species, outnumbered by discontented types by nearly two to one. With the average employee clocking in for 8.8 hours each day (and probably more if you count the off-hours spent shooting off a "quick" e-mail, then grousing about it), that's a large amount of time spent potentially being unhappy. What's the issue? Our poll suggests that it's a range of things, from salary to stress—all of which, say experts, can in fact be remedied. It may take a bit of maneuvering, a tall order of tenacity, and a change of attitude, but a better work life, and a newfound spring in your step, are within reach.
 

What You Want: A Fatter Paycheck

How to get it: Watching the Dow tick up and wishing your income would, too? Of course you are. "A raise not only demonstrates that your organization values you; it also motivates you to work harder," says Adrian Granzella Larssen, the editor in chief of the Daily Muse, a career-management website (themuse.com). So make an action plan: To get a sense of what's a reasonable bump, check what others at your level and in your field are making at payscale.com and glassdoor.com. Ask peers in the same industry whether they have received raises. (In a poor economy, raises are among the first things eliminated, so you may have to adjust expectations.) Finally, make a list of your job duties, taking note of how they have changed over the years (say, you may have been hired as a manager but assumed the tasks of the partner above you when she was laid off). Now take your recon, along with a list of your accomplishments (goals met, clients landed, projects completed), to your supervisor. Explain that your research suggests that, based on your responsibilities, your pay should be X, but you're making only Y. State the specific wage that you desire; don't round it off (say $56,250, not $55,000). A 2013 Columbia Business School study reported that, when negotiating, you're more likely to get what you want with a precise amount. And if your boss says no? Find out what you can do to work toward it. If it's a matter of budget, consider nonmonetary perks (such as more vacation time) instead.
 

What You Want: A Promotion

How to get it: Experts agree that the best way to increase your chances for a work promotion is through self-promotion. No need to wince—there are subtle ways to clue your boss in to your talents. Start by taking credit for your work. When given a compliment, don't say, "I couldn't have done it without X," or "It was luck." Just say "Thanks!" As Corinne Moss-Racusin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York, says, "despite recent gains, many women are still raised to think that sharing our accomplishments is unbecoming. As a result, they often undermine themselves without realizing it."

Be proactive. A 2013 joint study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a market-research firm, and the American Management Association found that 53 percent of senior executives define leaders by their impact, not their job titles. So don't offer to take on just any task. "Pick those that are highly visible to your superiors," says Moss-Racusin. Spearhead new projects (for example, a volunteer initiative); organize events (such as hosting a panel on your area of expertise). When people see you in charge, you earn instant credibility, says Nancy Ancowitz, a business-communication coach and the author of Self-Promotion for Introverts ($19, amazon.com).
 

What You Want: A Flexible Schedule

How to get it: According to a 2012 survey by the Families and Work Institute, 63 percent of organizations allowed at least some employees to work from home occasionally, compared with 34 percent in 2005. And 77 percent now permit at least some people to have a flexible schedule (such as shorter weeks with longer days). Certain fields are more open to this than others, with some of the biggest opportunities in health care, information technology, education, the nonprofit sector, sales, and marketing. Whichever your field, do your research before you request a schedule shift. Seek a mentor in your workplace who has flex time. "Ask how she got it and if there are any implications to it," says Olivia O'Neill, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. For example, "your advancement opportunities might move more slowly because you may be perceived as less committed or less valuable than someone who is on site full-time," says Lorra Brown, an assistant professor of communication at William Paterson University, in Wayne, New Jersey, who has researched the relationship between motherhood and career opportunities. You may also need to give up something—whether it's a portion of your clients or a portion of your paycheck. If you're still up for making the change, your best bet for getting it is to outline a formal schedule, detailing when and how you plan to fulfill your responsibilities and why it might be beneficial to the company (for instance, you would be working for an extra hour instead of driving for an hour).
 

What You Want: A Friendlier Office

How to get it: Just because you work in a cold, competitive environment doesn't mean that you can't uncover its warm-and-fuzzy side, at least a little. "No matter your position in the work hierarchy, you can influence those around you," says Shawn Achor, the author of Before Happiness ($26, amazon.com) and the founder of GoodThinkInc., a consulting firm focusing on how positive psychology can improve work performance. He suggests doing as Marriott hotel employees do: If you're walking within 10 feet of someone, make eye contact and smile; if you're within five feet, say hello. "Positive interactions are contagious, so when people see you acting collegial, they are positively affected," says Achor. Altruistic actions (bringing bagels to a meeting, arriving early to help a colleague prepare for a lecture) have additional benefits. Achor's research found that those who are generous to their cubicle mates are 40 percent more likely to receive a promotion than are their colleagues, probably because supervisors tend to reward employees who help fellow coworkers. Adam Grant, Ph.D., a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Give and Take ($16, amazon.com), adds, "Research shows that salespeople who are givers—people who help others without strings attached—bring in 68 percent higher annual sales revenue than those who aren't."
 

What You Want: More Creativity

How to get it: Experts suggest that employees are often happier when their work feels creative. So "highlight the skills that you're hoping to utilize or hone," says Grant. "Then ask a mentor or boss for advice on how to expand your contribution." Say, for instance, "I've always been interested in event planning, so I would love to help organize the gala fund-raiser next month." Or, if you want to put your accounting chops to good use, draw up a memo on ways that the company can save. If your boss doesn't see the value of challenging you (or simply doesn't have additional work to give you), find innovative ways to streamline your current tasks. Even devising a new filing system can give a boost of creativity and happiness at work, says David Burkus, Ph.D., a professor of management at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, and the author of The Myths of Creativity ($26, amazon.com).
 

What You Want: Less Stress

How to get it: If stress is stemming from your workload, figure out what you need to make it more manageable, perhaps by delegating tasks or pushing back deadlines. Then present your plan to your boss, says Marilyn Puder-York, Ph.D., a New York City–based psychologist and the author of The Office Survival Guide ($17, amazon.com). Remind her that you would be even more productive with more resources. "This demonstrates that you're focused solely on performing at a high level and not just looking to leave the office earlier each day," says Puder-York. If you're in an office that's just tense in general, sign up for a regular yet flexible after-hours activity that you find relaxing, she says, whether that's a vigorous tennis game or a yoga session.