Annie McKee, Ph.D is an adviser on happiness to leaders of multinational companies and governments around the globe. So I was surprised to learn that, not so very long ago, she was cleaning houses and waiting tables. These are not jobs designed to make people happy.
McKee mentions those early career experiences in her new book, “How to Be Happy at Work.” When I talked to her for our Expert Interview podcast, I asked her how she found happiness when she was doing that low-paid menial work.
Three factors pulled her through, and gave her a measure of happiness despite the insecurity that often accompanies that type of job. These were: purpose, or meaning; hope; and friendship. In McKee’s case, these three factors were intertwined.
Not Feeling Good About Yourself
“I remember one job I had, I was working for a woman named Mary. I was essentially cleaning her house and doing other tasks around her home,” she recalls. “And, as anyone who’s done that for pay knows, that can be hard.
“You maybe don’t feel so good about yourself, especially if you think you could do more. But I needed that job, so I really didn’t know what to do,” added McKee.
McKee began to observe Mary, who was a successful accountant.
Watching and Learning
“I started watching how she was living her life, and I thought, ‘Wow, I really admire what she’s doing as a professional woman. Let me just open my eyes and see what in fact she’s done,’” says McKee.
Over the next few months, the cleaner and her employer struck up a friendship.
“I think she saw something different in me, based on the questions I was asking her. Over time we developed a relationship that was really mentor-mentee. She really did help me see that I could do something better,” she says.
“I was still cleaning her house, but I found a lot more meaning in that work. I had expanded the definition of my job to include these conversations with Mary. My relationship with Mary became part of my job, and the rest didn’t feel as awful because of that,” she adds.
The Value of Purpose, Hope and Friendship
Purpose, hope and friendship made all the difference. Now, McKee believes that those three elements can lead to happiness in any job, and her academic research backs up what she discovered all those years ago, when she was cleaning for Mary.
In “How to Be Happy at Work,” McKee offers advice on finding – or creating – these three factors, if we feel they are lacking in our workplace.
When it comes to purpose or meaning, “we need to look for opportunities to make a difference,” she says. For example, whatever our organization, “we can find ways to fix systems and processes that don’t work very well. All of us can find ways to create, make and innovate in the workplace. We just need to lift our head up away from that computer and look around and see what we can do.”
Where Do We Want to Go?
The second factor is hope. “In the workplace, we need to feel that where we’re going is where we want to go, and it’s got to be bigger than our job or our career,” she says. “Then, of course, we need plans. We’ve got to actually try to get there, which means setting out some goals, setting out some milestones and some action steps, and then just marching forward.”
And finally, there’s friendship – a component of happiness that is mentioned less often than the other two, but is no less important.
“We need to feel that we belong,” McKee says. “We need to feel that we’re with people who are part of a tribe that we’re proud to be a part of, too. [So we should] try to understand other people.
“Trust before you are trusted, give before you get – those are the kinds of actions that are going to create strong, positive relationships that will not only infuse us with a sense of meaning and happiness at work, but will help us carry on and get through the challenging times that we all experience in our jobs,” added McKee.
Being Happy With a “Resonant Culture”
While she believes that the responsibility for a person’s happiness rests firmly with that individual, organizations do have a role to play. If managers can create what she calls a “resonant culture,” it will be much easier for team members to feel that all-important sense of purpose, hope and friendship.
In this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, McKee shares her thoughts on creating a resonant culture at work:
Listen to the full 30-minute interview in the Mind Tools Club.
What are your top tips for finding happiness at work? Join the discussion below!