Oh, Happy Workday: 14 Ways to Boost Your Mood at Work

If you’re like many Americans, your job doesn’t exactly thrill you. Maybe you don’t loathe it, and maybe you even acknowledge that it’s a good fit for your skills, but still…work is work. You come in each morning, do what you have to do, and leave the pursuit of happiness for your personal time.

I’m not going to patronize you and tell you that yes, you have the power to feel totally, completely, and incandescently happy from 9 to 5 each weekday. Like anyone who’s lived in the real world for more than five minutes, I know that work isn’t always fun and games. (In fact, early in my career, my family was genuinely concerned about my physical and mental health due to job-related stress!) But you know what? It is in your power to become happier at work.

When you focus on improving the simple things that are within your control, you’ll improve your attitude and be better equipped to handle the not-so-simple things that aren’t within your control, like fractious clients and looming deadlines.

Here are 14 tactics to boost your on-the-job happiness that I’ve collected over the years, ranging from the familiar to the surprising to the “why didn’t I think of that?”

  • Decide to be in a good mood. Make a conscious decision to be in a good mood each morning and make it part of your brand (even when you aren’t feeling so chipper). Put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or set an alarm on your phone to remind you of this intention. Often, you’ll be surprised to find that a “fake” smile becomes genuine as the day goes on. Whatever you do, don’t give everyone at the water cooler a play-by-play of the hectic morning you had or the argument you and your spouse got into the previous evening.
  • Take exercise breaks. Especially if you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk for long periods of time, I can’t overstate how important it is to get up every hour or two and move your muscles. Go for a walk around the building, walk up and down a flight of stairs, or stretch out with a few yoga poses. I promise, even a few minutes of activity can help you destress and improve your mood and focus.
  • Personalize your space. I know a lot of people whose cubicles and offices remain as generic throughout their careers as they were the day they were assigned. But unless there’s a rule specifically prohibiting it, I say let your inner interior decorator loose! Plants, pictures of your family, inspirational quotes, small sculptures, awards, even funny cartoons clipped from the paper—all of these things can make you smile and help you to feel comfortable in your workspace.
  • Be a poser. Body language isn’t just a way to communicate nonverbally with others. Research shows that your stance can actually influence your own mood and mindset, too! So-called “power poses” like lifting your head and chest and placing your hands on your hips can help you to feel more confident and less stressed. If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to a very interesting article and TED Talk on power posing.
  • Allow food to work for you. If at all possible, don’t eat lunch at your desk. Going somewhere else for your meal, even if it’s just the break room, will give you a much-needed respite from the tasks you’ve been working on and the tension you may be feeling. It’s even better if you can eat with colleagues and/or friends whose company you enjoy. And whenever you eat, whether it’s a meal or a snack, try to avoid junk. The food we put into our bodies has a real impact on how we feel physically and mentally. Choose foods that will boost your energy, not ones that will make you feel sluggish or cause you to “crash” in a few hours.
  • Mark your calendar. Of course you have all of your work meetings and deadlines marked on your calendar. If you haven’t already, pencil in personal events, too: family vacations, drinks with your girlfriends, poker night with the guys, your child’s school play, etc. Being reminded of things you’re looking forward to outside of work will lift your mood, give you something to look forward to, and remind you to pay attention to your work/life balance.
  • Use those vacation days. Sounds straightforward, sure, but 70 percent of North American workers don’t use all of their vacation days! I understand that sometimes our desires just don’t line up with reality, but much more often, I think, we let guilt or a misplaced sense of obligation push us in the direction of workaholism. Even if you don’t have time for the tropical vacation you’ve been dreaming about, a three-day weekend getaway can still do wonders for your attitude and resilience. Hey, they’re not called “mental health days” for nothing!
  • Clean up your office. Seriously, even if you protest that you’re a “naturally messy” person and you know where everything is in the chaos, nobody does their best work in a cluttered, dirty environment. I’m not saying that you have to hire a professional organizer. Start by doing a few simple things like clearing the piles of paperwork off your desk and putting each document in the appropriate file, getting rid of the flotsam you no longer use (broken staplers, dried-up pens, etc.), and scrubbing your desktop with a disinfecting wipe. I guarantee that having an organized, orderly workspace will put you in a better mindset to work, and in turn, being productive will improve your mood.
  • Be a team player. Yes, you could be an office hermit, stick solely to your own to-do list, and scoot out the door as quickly as possible each day. But if you push yourself to be a team player, you might find that you’re in a consistently better mood. So offer your help, opinions, and guidance to others. This will enable you to build more positive relationships with your coworkers (e.g., less drama!), and, as “givers” the world over know, helping others is a great way to feel the warm fuzzies.
  • Quit procrastinating. We all know what it’s like to dread certain items on our to-do lists. What you might not realize is how big of an impact these tasks have on our moods while they’re hanging over our heads. For the next week, I challenge you to look at your to-do list each morning and tackle the thing you want to do least, first. I bet you’ll be surprised by how much better you feel throughout the rest of the day.
  • Come in a little early as often as you can. This gives you a bit of breathing space that sets the tone for the rest of the day. It lets you get a jump start on projects and eliminates that “behind the eight ball” feeling that stresses you out until—and even after—it’s time to go home.
  • Have some fun. All work and no play really does make you a dull employee! If you’re able (i.e., if you won’t be violating company policy or risking censure), set aside a few 10- to 15-minute blocks each day for enjoying yourself. You can play a computer game, read a book, shoot some hoops (buy a miniature basketball goal that clips onto your office door), or whatever else you choose. The point is to totally step away from your work and place your attention on something that you enjoy. It’s a really effective way to improve your focus and resilience and to recharge your creativity.
  • Listen to some tunes. But isn’t music a distraction? you ask. Not necessarily. At the very least, putting on some headphones is a better alternative than listening to your cubicle-mates’ conversations, or to flinching every time you hear Cameron across the hall blow his nose. And believe it or not, some experts say that listening to music at work can boost creativity and productivity. If you’d like to learn more, here’s an interesting article on the role of music in the workplace.
  • Space out stressful meetings. If you can, give yourself time to recover between stressful meetings. It’s feasible to bounce back after one intense conversation or debate, but several in a row can completely erode your resilience.

Like it or not, you spend 40+ hours a week at work. So do yourself a favor and do what you can to boost your mood!

Are you wearing a mask?

Tomorrow is Halloween, a day when kids (and adults!) across America wear masks. It’s fun to “become” a superhero, a werewolf, a princess, a robot, a witch, or something else entirely, simply by putting on a costume. And it’s nearly as fun to observe others’ costumes, identifying who or what each person is supposed to be. I’m looking forward to seeing what my neighborhood’s trick-or-treaters have in store this year!

Thinking about Halloween costumes over the past few days has led me to consider something more serious, though: the concept of masks in general. On October 31, it’s easy to tell when someone is wearing a mask. Throughout the other 364 days of the year, however, masks aren’t so obvious—but they are common.

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • John is dissatisfied with his career, doesn’t feel challenged, and is sick of having to stroke his egotistical boss’s ego. But when he walks into his office building every day, he puts on the mask of an engaged worker. In order to maintain the status quo (and keep his job), he has mastered the ability to seem interested and eager when he’s anything but.
  • Stacy has been married to Travis for years, but still isn’t comfortable around his parents. During family visits, she downplays her political beliefs, dampens her humor, and bites her tongue in an attempt not to offend her set-in-their-ways, judgmental in-laws. The Stacy whom Travis’s parents think they know is a complete fake.
  • Ella has been battling breast cancer for several years. She often feels discouraged, defeated, and lacking in hope. However, her friends and family members describe her as the most optimistic, upbeat person they know. Why? Ella feels that it isn’t fair to drag others down and believes that she isn’t “supposed to” show any signs of giving up, so she buries her negative feelings deep inside while pasting on a smile.
  • Keith, a high school junior, isn’t very popular. He is deeply hurt when his classmates tease him about the clothes he wears and the comic books he reads, and he dreads walking into school each morning. However, he usually throws his classmates’ name-calling and insults back in their faces. He is known as “that wisecracking kid who doesn’t care what anybody thinks.”
  • Marian’s friends think that she lives a charmed life. Her house is immaculate, her clothes are stylish, and each batch of professional-quality pictures of her children that she posts on Facebook are more adorable than the last. What Marian’s friends can’t tell from external appearances is that Marian is miserable because she is on the verge of a divorce, and two of her children are driving her over the edge as well.

If you’re wearing a mask in your daily life, you may be tempted to tell yourself that “it’s for the best”—that it’s worth putting on an act of some kind in order to avoid confrontation and judgment while earning the approval of others. That’s exactly what I told myself in the years leading up to my breakdown. Deep down, I knew that the anxiety and unhappiness I felt wasn’t healthy, but I simply couldn’t face the possibility of being anyone other than the upbeat, workaholic golden boy so many people expected me to be. At that time, I didn’t love and respect myself enough to honor what I was truly feeling, and I managed to convince myself that I could keep up the act forever.

As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

Please trust me when I say: While taking off your masks may seem frightening, painful, and/or unwise, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health, your ultimate peace of mind, and your future. Being authentic is the only way to live the full, abundant, and satisfying life you were always meant to live. (For an in-depth look at how to begin removing your masks, review my posts on creating a more authentic life with yourself, your spouse, and your friends.)

So friends—I hope you enjoy wearing whatever mask you like tomorrow on Halloween. But after the tricks, treats, and parties are over, I hope you’ll make a genuine effort to put masks away until next October 31. If you do, I promise that the next year will be more full of growth, opportunity, and fulfillment than you ever thought possible.

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The Bad News Monopoly Explained

Have you ever noticed that the world seems to run on bad news and negative opinions? Every time you turn on the television to see evening headlines, for example, you’re bombarded with one depressing, concerning, or pessimistic story after another. (Although sometimes news outlets will throw in a story about cute animals or the like to lighten things up.) Often, the subjects of our conversations, the Internet links we click on, the books we read, and even the private thoughts that run through our heads aren’t much better.

Nobody (at least, no one I’ve ever met) thinks that being so immersed in negativity is fun. In fact, bad news decreases the quality of our lives in a very real way. The things we hear, think about, and discuss shape our attitudes, moods, and actions whether we’re conscious of it happening or not.

So, since nobody enjoys a lowered mood or a Debbie Downer, why don’t we simply change the things we report, read, and talk about? In this blog post I’d like to share several reasons why there’s such a bad news monopoly (if you’re like me, you’ll find them eye-opening and interesting). And in a later post I’ll share some strategies to help you change your mental diet for the better:

What’s driving the bad news monopoly?                   

*Survival. To some extent, humans want and need to know about worrisome things on the horizon so they can plan and prepare. From inclement weather to criminal activity to the economy’s projected fluctuations, it’s important to have an accurate picture of what’s potentially ahead. Unless you like to be blindsided, ignorance is not always bliss. And on the other hand, we can benefit from hearing about how others went wrong in the past. Some parts of history don’t need to be repeated!

*Negativity is in our language. One study shows that of all the words we use to express emotion, 50 percent are negative, 30 percent are positive, and 20 percent are neutral. Scientists believe that this is the case because negative words often convey danger or a threat (again, survival is at stake)…but this vocabulary breakdown doesn’t exactly predispose us to talk about, process, or share positive things.

*Curiosity. Let’s face it—most people have a healthy sense of curiosity. And often, it’s of the morbid variety—hence the popular saying “It was like watching a train wreck—I couldn’t look away!” In general, our society can’t resist hearing the details about this politician’s sordid secret life or that celebrity’s descent into drug addiction or even our own neighbor’s messy divorce, to give just a few examples.

*Schadenfreude. (If you’re not familiar with the term, click here for a brief German lesson!) It’s definitely not the noblest aspect of human nature, but I’d venture to say we’ve all felt a sense of pleasure when we heard of or noticed another person’s misfortune. Ha—happy it wasn’t me! you might think, or even, I’m glad to see him getting what he deserves. The media takes advantage of this fact to sucker in viewers and readers; so does your office’s resident gossip. At times, you probably do, too.

*Misery loves company. In the short term, it’s satisfying to rant and gripe about what’s bothering you with people who feel the same way. You feel validated, understood, important, and, most of all, not alone. Also, when you’re feeling depressed, frustrated, or generally crappy, you probably don’t want to surround yourself with people who seem like happy, hunky-dory Pollyannas.

*“Bad” really is news. I’ve heard the theory that—despite what you may think in your more cynical moments—the world and the people in it are still basically good; therefore, “bad” acts are out of the ordinary and thus newsworthy. I’d like to think it’s true!

So, there you have it: the bad news monopoly explained—at least partially. However, even if there are valid reasons for hearing significantly more bad news than good, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Again, when you continuously put negative opinions and information into your head—for whatever reason—sooner or later they’ll begin to infect your own attitude and happiness levels. In an upcoming post, look for my tips on how to overhaul your mental diet.

 

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Mental Health Stigma: Fast Facts and How to Help

Since May is Mental Health Month, I decided to write about what I see as the biggest issue facing people who struggle with mental health issues today: stigma.

It’s true that we’re learning more every year about mental health issues and how to treat them. And well-known personalities including Larry King, George Stephanopoulos, Brooke Shields, Terry Bradshaw, J.K. Rowling, and Sheryl Crow (to name just a few) have opened up about their own experiences with illnesses like anxiety and depression, and have urged that this topic be brought further into the light.

However, there’s still a definite stigma attached to mental health—one that usually isn’t present with more “physical” illnesses like cancer or diabetes. And that stigma has been hurting many, many Americans for decades. Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds aren’t getting the help they need and are living lives overshadowed by fear, anxiety, sadness, low self-esteem, and much more. (And in extreme cases, they’re even committing suicide.) With one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder each year, the importance of addressing, reducing, and eventually erasing mental health stigma shouldn’t be ignored.

Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on why people don’t get help and what can be done to lift the stigma.

Why people don’t get help:

  • I think I’m alone. Because it isn’t common for people who are being treated for issues like depression and anxiety to “go public” with their stories, sufferers often mistakenly believe that they are one of only a small group of people who have felt this way.
  • I don’t want to be judged. It’s no surprise that people would want to avoid attracting hurtful labels, including: crazy, lunatic, nut job, wacko, psycho, etc. Our society’s tendency to describe sufferers of mental illnesses in negative terms like these is extremely destructive because it creates shame where there should be none.
  • I don’t want to admit that something is wrong. Trust me, it’s incredibly hard to admit to yourself—let alone others—that you aren’t in control and that you can’t “handle” things on your own. Making this admission can be a huge blow to your pride and self-esteem.
  • I honestly don’t realize that I need help. Diseases like depression and anxiety don’t just pop up overnight. Often, they are the result of months, years, or even decades of stress and negative circumstances. For instance, if someone has a high-pressure job, he or she might write off mounting anxiety as “normal.” People often don’t realize that the scale has tipped from “normal” to “needing help.”
  • I just don’t feel up to it. Unfortunately, the very nature of mental health disorders can often make it difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help they need. For instance, since depression affects your energy levels, patients might literally not have the will to call the doctor, make an appointment, and go.
  • I don’t want to take medication. Many people are either fearful of taking medication or too proud to do so (e.g., “I can handle this on my own.”). Alternatively, many prospective patients may be reluctant to take medication because of other health implications, such as a desire to avoid negative side effects. Furthermore, many young people especially are resistant to medication because they don’t want to be teased, labeled, or bullied by their peers. (I’m sure the same thing happens among some groups of adults, too.)

What we can do to lift the stigma:

  • If you have a success story, share it! It is one of my greatest hopes that more people who have experienced issues like depression and anxiety will become less reluctant—even eager!—to share their stories. In a perfect world, I envision our society congratulating and honoring people who have battled and conquered these mental illnesses, just as we currently (and rightly!) celebrate those who have survived cancer. If there’s one thing I have learned from sharing my own story with others, it’s that there are so many other people “like me”—people who have felt absolutely sick, miserable, and hopeless due to depression and anxiety, have gotten the help they needed, and have gone on to live successful and happy lives. I believe that if more people talked about their success stories, the truth about mental health issues would quickly come to the forefront, and the stigma would begin to recede. Most importantly, all of these “success stories” could serve as a vital source of hope to those who might currently feel hopeless.
  • Learn the truth about mental illness. If you don’t have personal experience with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, learn more about them. Make sure that you, personally, are not buying into myths such as “if you’re feeling depressed, you should be able to tough it out.” Also, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you will understand how these diseases affect the body, and so that you’ll be more likely to recognize them in yourself and in your loved ones.
  • Be supportive and nonjudgmental of others. If someone in your life is suffering from a mental health issue, do everything you can to be helpful. Let the other person know that you’re on his or her side and that you want to help. Depending on the relationship, you might offer physical help—such as running errands or cooking meals on a bad day, or accompanying the person to medical appointments—or emotional support. At the very least, always strive to be sympathetic and reassuring. Remember, no one chooses to be depressed or anxious.
  • Turn the conversation in a positive direction. In some ways, this step is the most important of all. Whenever you have the opportunity, turn the conversation about mental illness in a positive direction. When appropriate, correct misconceptions about these issues. Always do your best to share truthful information. And even if it’s uncomfortable, I urge you not to shy away from this topic. As long as people don’t talk about it, the stigma won’t go away.
  • Get help if you need it. Yes, this can be incredibly scary. But I promise, you are not alone. And you can experience a positive future no matter how you are feeling right now. For your own sake, as well as for your friends and family, don’t let fears of being seen as “weak” or “sick” hold you back. I promise, addressing this illness is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do for yourself. And please, please—if you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out as soon as possible. You can call hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.
  • Don’t forget your medication. …when it comes to destigmatizing mental illness, that is! Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are essential tools for recovery in most cases. Yes, it’s true that some individuals overuse and abuse them, but the same thing can be said of any medication. Make sure to never, ever belittle a particular drug or those who take it. In my opinion, doing so is every bit as insensitive and judgmental as making fun of or criticizing someone with cancer or heart disease for taking the required and/or recommended medications.

I truly do believe that it’s possible for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more illnesses to feel comfortable sharing their stories and getting the help they need. But that will happen only through a grassroots movement. So please, make an effort to learn the truth about mental health issues so that you’re part of the stigma solution instead of the problem.