Are you a joyful person? That’s a trick question. You probably are, under the right circumstances. But maintaining a sense of joy through thick and thin is a tall order for anyone.
If you’re not constantly ho-ho-ho-ing, you’re probably more normal than those who are. On the other hand, if you rarely summon even the tiniest ho, that’s not great either.
The question is, how does one push up the joy meter? And the more challenging question: Why bother? After all, you won’t find your troubles melting away just by pasting a smile on your face.
Or will you? Actually, there’s a surprising number of studies that seem to demonstrate that joy can become a learned response to the challenges we encounter.
In preparation for this column, I decided to test the theory while shoveling snow. Gosh, I said to myself (more or less), it’s 2 below zero. Joy! And this crusted snow is really stuck. Double joy! And I need to get my car into this driveway pronto because the snowplows are coming. Joy joy joy!
You know what? It kind of worked. By the time I’d finished scraping out a spot for the car I was cracking myself up a bit. I can’t say I felt joyful while thawing out my fingers, but at least I wasn’t peeved. Focusing on the positive aspects of being outside in the crisp air and the satisfaction of clearing the driveway kept me from being annoyed. But I had to work at it by consciously creating positive thoughts again and again.
My extremely amateurish experiment reminded me of a lesson I learned from a job seeker about overcoming unpleasant job search tasks. About 15 years ago, I met a man at a talk I was giving on networking. Afterward, he introduced himself, and explained that he used to be almost pathologically afraid of this process. Things changed when he decided to conquer his fear of networking and perhaps even enjoy it. When I met him, he’d landed a job doing the last thing he’d ever have imagined for himself: Reaching out to strangers as a sales representative. His wife was with him and confirmed that he’d literally transformed himself by learning to find the joy in meeting strangers.
If coming to love an onerous task seems improbable, I’d settle for you finding a way through it with your humor and good spirits mostly intact. Here are some of the career challenges you might be able to apply this practice to.
Unemployment. It can be hard to find the silver lining in not having a job when you need one, but job seekers over the years have told me some of the blessings they’ve found in this challenging period:
• The opportunity to pause, revisit goals, and try new things, even if driven by necessity.
• The chance for renewal in terms of skill-building, and for meeting new people in the process.
• New-found flexibility, allowing more time to be present to family and friends.
Under-employment, and gig work. Needing more hours or better pay, working below your skill level, feeling stuck in dead-end jobs … these are hardly joyful circumstances. But there might be a few reasons for optimism:
• Not feeling tied to the job, which makes it easier to move on for something better.
• Perhaps not being overly taxed by the work, which leaves more “head space” and energy for other pursuits.
• Having nowhere to go but up, and feeling the motivation to do so.
Career dissatisfaction. Being confused about your career direction or just plain unhappy in the work you’re doing can take a significant toll, while also casting a shadow on other areas of your life. This is a situation where the contrast with your current unhappiness means the potential for joy can be especially acute, including:
• The opportunity to dig deep to find new ideas and possibilities for earning a living.
• Permission to finally let go of things that haven’t been working.
• The discovery of a new path that offers more hope for the future.
• The excitement of self-renewal, regardless of the challenges in making it happen.
We’re coming up on a new year, and the symbolic chance to start fresh. If you’ve been struggling with your career or job search, remember there’s always a new day and a new opportunity, even if you can’t see it at the moment.
I’m wishing joy to you and yours this holiday season. Thanks for the joy you give to me by being part of my reader community.
Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.