The Secret to Being Happy at Work? Care Less

Caring about work tends to creep into lives, one coffee-at-your-desk at a time. Aerogondo2/Shutterstock

There's no shortage of advice on how to be happy at work, and for good reason. A recent survey found two-thirds of us feel stress from our jobs due to the fast pace or tight deadlines, and that stress has a negative impact on our health.

Wake up extra early, one article suggests, and carve out some "me" time. (That nugget rings a little hollow for those whose only "me" time is sleep time.)

Of course, employers want you to be happy at the office too. And what better way to a keyboard grinder’s heart than through the belly?

Free bagels! Pizza day! Oh, and it’s so-and-so’s-birthday — let them eat cake.

Celebrating a birthday at your cubicle is only fitting since work and the rest of your life are united in unholy matrimony.

You married your job. Your colleagues are your family. Your office is your home. To put an even finer point on it, consider that sanctified office space corporately coined, “the nap room.”

Can you imagine stepping away from your workstation and bedding down in a curtained cubicle for a tidy hour — surrounded by your keyboard-clattering colleagues?

Is that your boss’ voice? Is she asking where you are — or more importantly, the whereabouts of those reports you were supposed to have prepared?

Woman laying in chair in nap room.
Woman pretends to be sleeping in the office nap area, but no one actually looks like this when they nap, do they?. EvgeniiAnd/Shutterstock

No, if corporate overlords really meant for you to sleep on the job, there would be a fat bottle of Xanax in the nap room — and you would emerge from the office tent at around 3 a.m., just in time to scare the bejesus out of the cleaning staff.

What the nap room shows — along with cubicle birthdays and office hours that blend into home hours and late-night emails — is that work is living all over us.

In an essay for Quartz, U.S. philosopher Andrew Taggart lays it out like so:

“Work becomes total when all of human life is centered around it; when everything else is not just subordinate to, but in the service of work. Leisure, festivity, and play come to resemble work — and then straight-up become it.”

And it’s making us desperately unhappy.

So what should we do about it?

Taggart, a practical philosopher who has authored several books looking at the subject, may offer the most convincing how-to-be-happy of all: Try caring less.

We’re not talking about reaching the point of no sh%#s given. The job gets done. But we dial down the caring so it doesn’t own your every waking moment.

And how, oh wise practical philosopher do we rip away what’s the very fabric of our being? How do we dismiss jovial, cake-bearing colleagues singing "Happy Birthday"?

Besides, cutting out that job-caring tumor — one that's so ingrained in our lives — is not without risk to the patient.

“Sure, you could become completely indifferent to life and not care about anything,” Taggart notes, “Or develop a distaste for working that reveals itself in extreme procrastination.”

The thing is, either way, you’re not going to be happy.

So why not take a chance on joy?

Taggart advises that we first ponder a key Buddhist tenet: attachment to things — in this case, career success — doesn’t bring happiness.

You need only gaze up the corporate ladder. Does your stressed-out, hernia-baiting, family-shunning boss seem any closer to Nirvana than you are?

People sitting around table corporate boardroom.
Even bosses get the blues. Akmedia/Shutterstock

“If career success too often brings misery, then should it be esteemed as highly as it usually is?” Taggart asks.

Instead, he suggests we start esteeming things that do bring us joy.

And feel free to experiment here. We could even just roam around without any plan at all, letting the world we explore tickle our happy bones.

In other words, skip the nap room. Take a hike. Write a poem. Maybe go home and watch "Storage Wars" if that brings you a measure of joy.

“Once we’ve gotten the knack for embracing the idea that certain things in life are wondrous because they’re not focused on getting through, onto, or ahead of something, we can turn our attention to ourselves, inquiring into our own lives,” Taggart writes.

Climb mountains. Playgrounds, even. Just not corporate ladders. Try doing anything that isn’t, even indirectly, in the service of your employment.

Why shouldn’t you at least take the chance?

“If the solution to your anxiety is keeping your head down, easing up a bit, or working more efficiently, you’ll someday regret the awakened life that will have ultimately, tragically passed you by,” Taggart writes.

Instead, try taking your caring chips off the corporate table. Put them somewhere that Human Resources can’t even locate — inside of you.