Given her job titles, it would be easy to dismiss Penn professor Annie McKee’s book “How to Be Happy at Work” as a pie-in-the-sky prescription for the whining privileged who enjoy the luxury of worrying about being fulfilled at work.
After all, McKee, 62, a Ph.D., runs an executive doctoral program for chief learning officers through the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She’s the author of four books and a counselor to chief executives, having been one herself.
But she was also once on welfare, cleaning houses and counting on food stamps to feed her children.
On her knees scrubbing floors, McKee came to understand the true basis for happiness at work.
“Cleaning houses — it’s hard to find something to be really proud of,” she said, sitting in the kitchen of her well-appointed — and very clean — house in Elkins Park. “So I recognized that I had to do something to make my job better. What helped me was [thinking] what about that job made me feel better.
“I discovered,” she said, “I liked to make things better,” which happened with each swipe of her dust rag.
McKee began to converse with her employer, and soon that woman became a mentor, encouraging McKee to return to school and pointing her to a brighter future.
As the years passed, McKee and academic colleagues — including Daniel Goleman at Princeton — conducted hundreds of interviews, globally, with all levels of employees to learn about organizations and leadership, interviews that formed the basis for her book, published by Harvard Business Review Press.
So what does it take to find happiness at work? (And keep in mind that, according to Gallup, which tracks this, only a third of U.S. workers are “engaged,” meaning “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.” Another survey, by the Philadelphia staffing company Yoh Services LLC, says worker confidence fell to a yearlong low in the first quarter.)
For happiness, three things matter: a sense of purpose and an opportunity to contribute to a larger cause; a personal vision of a good life, embracing work and home and a reason for hope; and resonant and friendly relationships, including at work.
“I learned you need to take care of your emotional life, just as you do your physical health,” she said.
“It’s tempting to blame other people — that toxic boss, that horrible manager — when you aren’t happy,” she said.
Sometimes, the best solution is a burn-no-bridges exit. But “running away isn’t always possible.”
Go out to lunch — or at least don’t eat at your desk. Have coffee with a colleague. Learn a new skill — because you want to, not because the company says so. Those are baby steps toward happiness, because each asserts the employee’s power.
“I think we have a lot more control than we think we do,” McKee said. “We box ourselves in.”
Sometimes, she said, people may not even see themselves as unhappy, just settled into an unsettling discontent.
“If you are normally a glass-full kind of person, and you find yourself pessimistic and cynical; if relationships that were enjoyable are now strained; if you worry all the time; if you see physical signs, like not sleeping, or eating or drinking too much; if you don’t feel like you’re on the top of your game and somehow it doesn’t seem worth it anyway,” those are all signs to begin a happiness makeover, she said.
Sometimes, overheated ambition is the culprit, where getting ahead obscures the happiness of doing it right. Sometimes, it’s a bigger paycheck. But mostly, it is endless “shoulds,” enslavement to happiness-sapping tasks or workplace customs, McKee said.
The first step to happiness is to “fully embrace the idea that happiness is a human right, and that it is important in the workplace,” she said. “The second is to lean into your own emotional intelligence.” Figure out what made you happy in the past. Look for ways to connect your values to work values. (For example, McKee realized she valued making things better and was doing so as she cleaned.)
“Then comes the really hard part: using emotional self-control to hold steady as you make changes, because you are going to get scared,” she said. Going out for lunch while others are desk-dining, for example, may require chutzpah.
That’s why it’s important to have work friends who support your efforts and tell the truth about your impact on the job. McKee rejects the old caveat about keeping work and personal friendships separate.
“Like all myths, there is a kernel of truth to it,” she said. “But I think we are more likely to have clouded judgments because we don’t know people than if we do know them.”