From the August 2014 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Unhappiness Ever After: 10 Questions for a Reality Check at Work

Often the key to happiness is admitting you’re not happy

There's only so much your company can do to keep you happy. Ask yourself if it's time for a change. There's only so much your company can do to keep you happy. Ask yourself if it's time for a change.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the strategies that we recommend firm owners use to keep their employees happy and, therefore, highly productive. That's because over the years, I’ve come to realize that being happy in our work is not only a major indicator of how well we will perform our jobs, but also how we feel about many other areas of our lives. Happy employees tend to be better spouses, parents, children, friends, citizens and members of the global community.

Yet while one's working environment is important, your company can only do so much to promote your happiness. Whether you’re an owner-advisor, a receptionist or have any job in between, it's important to take responsibility for your own happiness. To do that, the first step is determining just how happy you currently are.

Surprisingly, most of us really don't know. We’re usually so caught up in doing what we feel we need to do that we rarely stop to consider whether it's what we should do. That means that we also aren't thinking about whether—just maybe—we should be doing something else.

With our client firms, we use a number of indicators to help us gauge how happy their owners and employees are. To that list, I’ve added some things I look at to keep tabs on my own happiness. The result is 10 questions that will help you determine whether your job is really doing it for you.

1. What's your energy level? While it's not the only thing we look at, we find that the best indicator of on-the-job happiness is how much energy someone has when they are at work. Sure, we all have down days, but generally people who are happy in their jobs are passionate about them. That passion shows up in their energy level. People who like what they do take their jobs seriously. They throw themselves into doing a good job and usually succeed. If you don't feel energized at work most days, it's probably past time to ask yourself why.

2. Are you spending most of your energy on something other than your job? These days most of us have many demands on our time and energy: family, friends, community, education, commitments, hobbies, travel, etc. But for most of us, our jobs make up a large portion of where we spend our time. I’m not saying your job should be the most important thing in your life—it probably isn't—but it is a big part of your life, and if you’re not happy doing it, it will have an impact on the more important things. Find a balance in which you have enough energy to do your job well and to do the more important things. For whatever reason, if you can't find a way to do that in your current job, it's probably time to think about a change for the sake of all the important things in your life, including you.

3. Can you sit at a table with your coworkers, look around at them and honestly say you don't envy the lives of anyone around you? If so, you’re probably sitting at the wrong table. Particularly in a small business such as an advisory firm, you all may have different jobs, but you’re trying to accomplish the same goals. Different employees (and owners) bring different skills to help achieve those goals, and virtually nobody has all the skills to reach the level of success you’ve achieved together. If you don't respect the contributions of your co-workers toward your combined success, you don't share their goals. You’d be a lot happier working with people whose goals you do share.

4. What can you learn from the people around you? Personal growth is one of the greatest sources of happiness: the feeling that you’re getting better at things that are important to you and to others. If you don't feel that you’re growing in your current job, then it's probably time to look for a situation where you can grow.

5. Do you feel trapped in your current job because you wouldn't make as much money doing something else? There is probably no bigger, or more common, source of unhappiness in the workplace than the “money trap.” But remember my original premise: If you’re unhappy at work, it will undoubtedly spill over into every other area of your life, so you have to ask yourself, is the money really worth it? Worth the decrease in happiness for everyone who is important to you? Worth setting that example for your kids to follow? Before you answer, here's one more thing to think about. In the long run, do you really think you’ll be more successful doing something you don't like or doing something that makes you happy nine days out of 10?

6. Have you started coming in later and later, and leaving earlier and earlier? Are you spending much of your working time thinking about your next vacation? If so, you’re really a part-time employee. Just being there may have worked for Peter Sellers, but chances are it's not working for your co-workers, you firm's clients or yourself.

7. Do you find yourself neglecting your own work to help other employees with their work? If so, you might want to think about moving toward doing what they are doing. Or maybe you just like working with other people rather than alone in your office. Either way, there's a message here. Finding things you’d rather be doing is nature's way of telling you to wake up. The job you’ll be best at is one you’d do for free (although you don't have to share that with your employer or your clients).

8. Do you find yourself openly complaining about your job or your firm or your coworkers (or all three) on a regular basis? Honestly, is it worth it? Is this really who you want to be and how you want to live your life? Chances are you act this way because you feel trapped (see Question 5), but have you really gotten out there to see what your options are? Don't you owe it to yourself at least to find out?

9. Are you unable to see yourself working for the same firm in five years? Maybe you ought to ask yourself why. What's missing in your current situation? And where do you think you could find it? You’ll never know until you try.

10. Do you see your current job as a stepping off point for the job you really want? If you’re already in your dream job, skip this one (although you’ve probably skipped the whole column). If not, are you on your way to getting it? Often happiness is just a matter of feeling like you’re on the right track—and unhappiness is, well, not. In fact, I’ve often found that simply moving toward your goals can be the happiest time of your life. Once you get there, if you’re smart, you’ll find a new goal to work toward.

All these questions probably don't apply to you, but even one or two can give you an indication of how happy you are in your present job. If they start to give you the feeling you might not be as happy as you could be, the next steps are to figure out why and decide what to do about it. While this is the scary part for most of us (and why we don't raise the question earlier), in my experience, the answer is usually a lot more workable than you feared. I think that's because working toward a solution can make you as happy (or happier) than actually solving the problem. For instance, going to night school or just interviewing for another job can make you feel better about the job you have.

What's more, realizing or admitting that you’re unhappy in your job doesn't mean you have to leave the firm (or sell it if you’re the owner). It simply means you now have the opportunity to make some changes that will make you happier. Maybe there's another job in your firm that you’d like better, or maybe your current job could be redesigned to better suit you. A couple of years ago, I realized there were parts of my job as a consultant that I really loved, and others, not so much. So I hired people to do what I dreaded, leaving me more time to do what makes me happy. Admitting that you’re unhappy can be the gateway to happiness. It creates the foundation to make your job—and your life—better.

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