Five Hacks for Being Happier and Healthier at Work

By Lisa Smusz, MS, LPCC


If you started work at age 20 and retired at age 65, working the average American workweek of 40 hours per week, you can expect to spend 10.3 years of your life at work. And, if you’re stressed and unhappy at your job, that 10.3 years can feel a whole lot longer.

Work is mandatory for most of us in the real world, but suffering is optional. Here are five hacks for being happier (and healthier!) while you work.


house of cards animated GIF

1. Relationships > Netflix. A good Netflix marathon can be an awesome way to forget about an awful week at work. But when you find you’re opting out of getting together with friends or family to veg out in front of the TV on the regular, you’re making it worse for yourself. Having a supportive social network pays off big time: People with social support have an easier time dealing with the stress and adversity that comes with work and everyday life, and having a reliable social network can even help you live longer. One study demonstrated that the lack of a good support network even increased risk of dying from disease, suicide or accidents as much as smoking.[1] Seriously, call your friends and family.


2. Get Out More. If you’ve been spending all day in cubicle-world, wondering what that big, yellow orb in the sky is, maybe it’s time you got out more. Yes, too much UV exposure can lead to skin cancer, but not enough leads to depleted Vitamin D stores which plays and important role in Serotonin production. Decreased serotonin can lead to things like feeling down, having difficulty sleeping, trouble thinking and finishing tasks, getting annoyed easily and being unable to control your impulses. If this is sounding familiar, it’s time to get outside. Just 20 minutes of getting some of that good, bright, full-spectrum, sunlight in your eyes everyday can make a big difference in how you feel. And no, staring at a bright iPad screen before bed doesn’t count. In fact, bright light before bedtime can actually disrupt sleep patterns and make matters worse. Exercise boosts mood too, so for the biggest bang for your buck, slather on some sunscreen and try taking a 20-minute walk outside on your lunch break every day.


3. Mix It Up. Doing one thing all day, whether it’s sitting, staring at a screen, multi-tasking or typing isn’t good for your body or your mood. In fact, those habits can lead to all kinds of negative outcomes like weight gain, eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome and just a generally miserable day. We all know we should take short stretch breaks, try standing instead of sitting, and rest our eyes but it’s easier said than done when you get wrapped up in what you’re doing. Try a little technical help by downloading some of these free apps that pop up on your computer screen, remind you to take a break or even lead your through some visual breaks and exercises right at your desk:


4. Try the Miracle Question. Everyone has heard the advice to “reduce stress” in their life. That’s good advice where you can put it into place, but let’s face it: Most of what we have to do in our workplace isn’t really up to us. What is within your control is how you view the stressor and respond. The fancy psychology jargon for this is: “constructive reappraisal of stressors.” How does this matter to you in your workplace? The things that really stress people out are A) not knowing what’s going to happen (uncertainty) and B) feeling like they can’t do anything about it (lack of control). Put that knowledge to work for you by asking questions that will give specific expectations. Vague assignments or muddled problems lead to misunderstandings, feelings of being unable to meet expectations, and stress. When given a new project try asking: “What are the three most important things I need to accomplish for you to feel like this project was a success?” When facing a complex problem, try the Miracle Question: “If you woke up tomorrow, and this problem had miraculously been solved, what would be your very first clues that something had changed …” Once you have more clarity about the situation you can then make plans to tackle the task or problem and you will feel more capable of dealing with what you are facing.


5. It Takes Practice to Be Positive. The Buddah was quoted as saying “It is your mind that creates this world” and research seems to support this, indicating that optimists have fewer physical symptoms of illness, recover more quickly, are generally healthier, and live longer than their pessimistic brethren.[2]  Luckily, optimism is something that you can learn. Practice noticing positive things that happen during your day. It doesn’t need to be complicated; it can be as simple as consciously recalling one good memory from your day (even if it was just a really good cup of coffee that morning). Try doing this during your commute home, or better yet sharing one positive moment from your day with your friends or family when you have dinner that evening, or as a Facebook post asking friends to do the same in the comments section. Recalling and sharing positive experiences, especially with other people who are encouraging and supportive, gives you the maximum mood boost,[3] and practicing positivity over time has a real impact on how you perceive your world and those 10.3 years you spend at work.


Lisa SmuszLisa Smusz is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor with more than 15 years of experience operating large-scale mental health projects and has internationally published works on stigma reduction, and interventions for at-risk youth. Ms. Smusz currently heads her own consulting company and is an instructor at California State University, East Bay.


[1] House, J. S., Landis, K. R., and Umberson, D. (1988) “Social relationships and health.” Science 241, 540-545.

[2] Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988) “Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five year longitudinal study.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23-27.