Many people have an idea of what their dream job is and how they’ll feel when they land it. But what happens when you land a dream job and still feel unhappy? What can you do when your dream job isn’t dreamy? How can you tell if it’s you? The job? Or something else.

Most people want to be happy. While some people never expect work to fill any happiness gaps, many do. As the world of work has changed, so has the belief that happiness can be found in our professional life.  There is often a spike of short-term happiness when you first land a dream job, but it wanes as the newness wears off. Some people feel that on their first day of the new job.

SIDE NOTE: I’ve worked in Career Transition for about 10 years and it’s not unusual for people to share that they’re sad after they land a job — even if they’ve worked hard to land one. It’s the finality. When you’re in a career transition or job search, you don’t know what will happen and where you’ll end up. With the signed job offer, the surprise is gone. You know what you got and the exploration is temporarily paused as you start the new job. 


What is Happiness?

Critics of the happiness movement have said the emphasis on happiness has become a social problem. People who used to feel merely content at work now feel pressured to feel happier. And people expect more from their careers than before. It is not just about making money, many use their jobs as a place for connection, meaning, expression, and status. Studies about happiness, and what it entails, come out all the time, there is even a journal for happiness.

People who feel unhappy at their job don’t care about the definition. They just know it doesn’t feel good. They describe it as:

  • Disinterest in their work, product, co-workers, and company
  • Increased feelings of frustration when things come up at work
  • Feeling pangs in the pit of their stomach when they think about going to work
  • Guilt about underperforming and not caring
  • A deep belief they were meant for more interesting/challenging/important work
  • Feeling like their contribution and style is not respected by others, especially people in higher power roles
  • A sense that they are “phoning it in” and worried about what that will do for their professional reputation and work ethic in the future

The Happiness Grid

One of the most inspiring views about what happiness is and how to develop it in your life comes from Shinzen Young, a mindfulness teacher and neuroscience consultant. He broke the elements of happiness into a scientific table. In his Happiness Grid, there are five areas of happiness that can be systematically developed in people. 

Relief: The ability to move away from, focus away, or be with unpleasant sensory situations

Fulfillment: The pursuit of satisfaction or comfort through pleasant situations and experiences, you are able to experience pleasant situations fully

Insight:  You fully understand yourself, your actions, and your value

Mastery: You take and show skillful action and behaviour, often at work this is self-management mixed with expression skills

Service: The way you show up for other people

The levels of the Happiness Grid start at surface happiness and go into deep happiness.

The Happiness Grid and Your Work Unhappiness

One way to assess if it’s you, the job, or both is to look at the happiness grid and note where you are for each level.

One tip: a lot of high achievers might be at the deepest level in the service category (meaning you’re great at showing up and mentoring others), but haven’t developed the ability to savour when things are going well (low fulfillment skills) or have a reliable way to anchor away from negative situations. You can have varying levels of the happiness elements.

If this is you, it could be that training in mindfulness skills would make you happier at work.

How To Know If The Job is Making You Unhappy

If you want to know if the job is the problem, I suggest three things:

1. Skills/strengths analysis

One easy way to know if the problem is the job is to track your weekly tasks and responsibilities. Make a list of the work you are doing each week and the skills it takes to do them. Compare the skills used in the job with your super skills. If you’re not sure what you’re super skills are, do the first step of the Career Stories Method.

2. Values

You can also do a reflective activity to see if your values and the company’s (or your manager’s) values are in-sync.

In my book, I share that the three most important values to get clear on workwise are money, status, and making a difference. If those aren’t a match, and you’re not on a job to gain experience, you’ll want to develop skills in the “relief” section of the happiness grid.

You can also make a list of your values, or if it’s easier for you do this free online values sorter and compare that to the values of the company you work for.

If the job you’re in doesn’t allow you to use your super skills and it doesn’t match your values, it is likely the job isn’t a great fit for you. That’s great information to know. 

3. Expectations

It’s worth checking your expectations of what a job can give you. Many people will place all their happiness goals on a company or job. Either through circumstance or low research people land in jobs where their idea of what they thought it would be like doesn’t match the reality. Those unrealistic expectations can leave them feeling depressed. If you just landed your new job, you’ll want to ensure that you know:

  • your career story
  • your values
  •  the company’s culture
  • the company’s values

before jumping into a new role.

Also, look at your expectations and see if you’ve put too much pressure on a job or business to fulfill your needs. Perhaps there are other areas of your life that could make work feel less unhappy.

What If You Need To Stay In a Job You Hate?

While it’s helpful to know whether it’s you, the job, or both. In some cases, no matter the reason, leaving the job isn’t a possibility right now. Assuming that the job is not abusive, here are three things you can do right now to ease the suffering you are experiencing at work. 

1. Experience relief by anchoring away.

You can develop relief skills to feel happier by learning anchoring away techniques. These techniques help you to learn how to live in unideal situations without it upsetting or adding stress to your life. Annoying things happen all the time. If you dislike your job, but you have no way of turning away from the annoying things, they just get bigger. It adds to the suffering. The only thing you can control in this situation is your reaction. 


2. Build fulfillment by turning towards pleasant experiences

Another option is to develop your ability to more fully experience when pleasant things do happen. You can build fulfillment by training yourself in positivity practices or learning how to turn towards and savour pleasant sensations. Here is a sample practice to build fulfillment skills:

You can also do a daily practice of writing down what went well at work in a journal. This helps you to see the positive impact you’re making, and can also become material for your future resume or career stories. 

3. Do activities outside of work to build up happiness

If your work sucks right now, it is worth looking for places outside of work to express yourself. 

I was not happy in the last corporate role I had. The project I was supposed to be running was paused for months. While there were some tasks to do, it felt like busy work. I knew I couldn’t quit the job, so I looked for things I could do to improve my long-term situation.

I started to share information and stories that were unrelated to my job. In the evenings, I wrote posts about job searching and storytelling. I made videos on my commute to work — sometimes in my parka in a frozen car!  I looked for places to volunteer as a guest speaker. At first, the stories and posts didn’t get much attention but it made me feel more in control of my career. Over time, my voice and style developed and that side project became the business I still run.

ACTION: Think about your interests and where you would want to go next. With that goal in mind, what stories could you tell now? What information could you share that helps people understand your value? How could you show up in your real or virtual communities that lay the groundwork for future opportunities?

You can also start to incorporate this new brand/vision into your existing day job. I had a client who worked a full-time job but wanted to leave to run their own marketing organization. I said, “Treat your current job like you’re consulting for them. Use it as a testing ground for the next thing.” That helped them to face their workday and practice their consulting skills. You can play the part before you’re offered it. 

And, remember, this too shall pass.