Episode 22

Happiness at Work

Want a crash course into solutions for challenges facing people in the workplace today? Our conversation with Dr. Tracy Brower, author, work sociologist and Principle with the Steelcase Applied Research and Consulting team is fast paced, informative, filled with tips and references to relevant research. You’ll walk away from this episode better prepared to have a good day.

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And a pathway to happiness, one of the secrets, is to focus on other people. And generosity is significantly correlated with happiness. And empathy is correlated with happiness. The reason is it expands your perspective. Dr. Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, this is your host CCB, and today we're going to have a conversation with one of our favorite authors, and I'm going to say author because the amount of material that this person produces is amazing, astounding and so prolific that we wonder when she has time to sleep. So, I'd like to welcome Dr. Tracy Brower to the ONEder Podcast and I'm going to ask Tracy to introduce herself.

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:00:34] Sounds good. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. So, yes, I'm an author. My most recent book is "The Secrets to Happiness at Work". I'm a contributor with Forbes.com and Fast Company, and writing is my therapy. It's what I do on the weekends to work through things and think on paper. So that's pretty cool. And I'm a principal with Steelcase's Applied Research and Consulting team.

CCB: [00:00:59] So you get to practice what you're thinking on a daily basis, and we'll kind of talk about that a little bit, but at first I wanted to ask you not about your most recent book, but about the first book you published, "Bringing Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work". And I thought that leads us into your most recent book. So would you spend a little bit of time and describe the content of that book?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:01:28] Yeah, absolutely, so I went back to school for my PhD when our son was five and our daughter was nine and it was very exciting. So I was living the dream in terms of work and life and school and lots and lots of priorities. And I just looked around and thought, you know, our narrative about work in life is that it's this balance that you can't have both, that work is drudgery. And I wanted to rethink that narrative. And I wanted to give consideration to how we might describe it differently for ourselves and therefore create a different set of circumstances. So "Bringing Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work" is about alternative ways to think about work life balance and ways to think about navigating work and life and really thinking about how organizations can give people support for all of the parts of their work and their life.

CCB: [00:02:25] And what I appreciated about that particular publication was the reframing--the challenge to reframe, to look at things in that different way. And then your most recent book, "Secrets to Happiness at Work". I've read it a number of times, and as I mentioned earlier, it's deceptively simple because it incorporates so many tips, so many suggestions, so many opportunities for each one of us to own the improvement of our. Yes, but it took me, I think it was maybe the third time that I read the book that I realized it was "Secrets". The plural, which is fantastic, because there is so, so very much in the book. So tell us why you chose now and that focus.

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:03:29] Yeah, I love your comment "deceptively simple", the publisher likes to say that it's like a TED talk in book form because it's very short and it's very graphical. So a normal business book is sixty thousand words. This one is sixteen thousand words. It kind of reminds me of that Mark Twain quote, "If I'd had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter," so that compact is pretty cool. I love your comment. You know, I think now is the perfect time to have this conversation. And it's because we've been through so much. It's because happiness, engagement, feeling good about our contributions are going to be such a critical part of the employee value equation. It's this, again, it's this myth of drudgery, like work is hard and work is bad. And if I could just eat bonbons every day or sit on the beach every day, life would be good. But in actuality, we all want to make a contribution. We want to feel like we're mattering in our community. And so work can be a really wonderful place and not Pollyanna. It's not always wonderful. Of course it's going to be up and down, but now is the right time because we can also find happiness when we go through hard times and we can talk later about like post-traumatic growth and the ways that difficulty actually are fodder, raw material for happiness. So it's a good time, I think, for this conversation.

CCB: [00:04:58] I couldn't agree with you more. I think also the the subtitle of the book, "Choose and Create Purpose and Fulfillment in Your Work" is a red herring, if you will, because there's that choice packed in there. And the create and choose once again, come back to us, we own the opportunity. So the idea of I'm going to say the fixed mindset versus growth mindset that set something that weaves through a lot and, how do you suggest change if you live in the fixed mindset?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:05:43] Boy, that's a tough question. You know, I think it's about reminding ourselves of our own empowerment. And I think there's this myth about happiness that we can be happy when the conditions are exactly right, when the silver platter arrives and all of the table is set for us to be happy. And in reality, we're so empowered to create our own happiness, create the conditions for our own happiness. So I think part of the growth mindset comes out of reminding ourselves how much choice we do actually have. We have choices to reframe a situation. I love the mantra, "Change your thinking, change your life". Right? Like even in the most dire conditions we can think, frame, get perspective. We always have choices about potentially influencing our situation. And again, that's on a continuum depending on the situation. But we can make choices about influencing our situation and frequently we can make choices to opt out to make a different choice. Not always. I know some choices feel like they're absolutely in cement, but many times we can. And I think part of the growth mindset is reminding ourselves of that set of choices that we have, reminding ourselves of our own empowerment and reminding ourselves of our own capability. And I love the idea of both agency and structure. Agency is "I'm an agent, I can make choices. I can be empowered". Structure is important to structure is the conditions of the community or the society or the workplace. But the important thing to know is, sociologically speaking, the primary way that people learn is through watching other people. We're not always conscious of that. But the reason that's important is we all have influence through our own behaviors, through the way we act. We are always modeling for others whether we need to or not. So we really do have the power to influence our own lives and we actually have influence over some of those structural components or those systemic components as well.

CCB: [00:08:01] Whenever I speak with you, Tracy, I have this great desire to have you encapsulated and stuck on my shoulder so they can sit here and remind me on a regular basis of so much of the information that you have packed in that lovely little head. Something else that you, I mean, just as we're sitting here talking, I constantly think of Viktor Frankl and "Man's Search for Meaning". And you want to use a remarkable example of, what can you do? And in your book, you have those prompts to, you know, remain present. What's that going to do? And all of it is so simple. And that's where that deceptive simplicity comes from. It's all so simple, but it just is the reminders that we need on a regular basis. One of the aspects that I appreciated this in my most recent reading of "Secrets to Happiness at Work" is that whole idea of assessing your job. And you're talking about if, we're talking today about the gigantic tsunami of job change and the fluidity of the market and what's going to happen when people actually return to the office and are they going to make choices to change? And this time has definitely prompted so much thinking about, what am I doing? Do I want to continue doing it this way? So could you talk a little bit about that job assessment tool?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:09:32] Yes. Oh, this is such a tsunami. That's exactly the right word. I love the language you choose. Yeah, 40 percent of people are talking about they're going to change employers. Forty-three percent of employers say they need more staff than what they've had in the past. I mean, it's just it's the salami, nothing less. I think the other cool thing about this moment is with distance, we get objectivity. So we're all going to come back to something. Even if we're still working in our home offices or doing hybrid work, we're going to have this new perspective on work and we're going to have this new objectivity, this fresh outlook. And we're going to get back to the office and we're going to say, oh, I remember these people. I really like these people. I miss these people. Right? Or I remember doing this work. I really like this work. I'm really good at this work or. Oh, yeah, I remember this annoyed me before. It's still kind of annoys me. Right? Like we're just going to have this new objectivity. And I think the really interesting way to think about assessing our work and our opportunities for happiness, I love to think about, what do you have to do in your job and what do you love to do? And like any good researcher, we can put that on a two by two matrix. And you want as much overlap as you can between those things. Because the other thing about happiness that I really think is important is that there is no perfect choice. Right? Like every choice you make, there will be pros and cons. There will be assets and liabilities. I'm going to choose a job I'm going to like most of it. But those expense reports, I could really do without those. Or I'm going to choose a partner and he's going to be awesome. But if I'm really honest, there are a few things that annoy me just a bit. So you're never going to have a choice that is perfect or idyllic. But as much as possible you want overlap between what you love to do and what you have to do. So that's one way to assess your role. I think another thing that's important to think about is kind of the future, right? Like, one of the symptoms or conditions of burnout is stuckness, feeling stuck, feeling like there's no path forward, feeling like there's no growth opportunity. That is a symptom of burnout. And sometimes you may not love your current role, but you see a path forward. You see the next role within a culture that you value or you see colleagues around you from whom you can learn. You see places where you can be stimulated in your next step. So I think there's kind of a short term present assessment and then there's also kind of that longer term cash. Where might I go in this organization? And both of those are important.

CCB: [00:12:12] And so thinking about organizations and the people and the friends and the colleagues, I'm reminded of the conversation in your book about empathy and the value of recognizing and kind of leading into empathy. So could you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:12:32] Yeah, absolutely. Interestingly, if we pursue happiness, we're statistically less likely to achieve it because it's kind of like sand through your hands at the beach, right? I live close to the beach and it's summertime. And so, my goodness, I'm thinking about sand through my fingers. But the reason that you're less likely to accomplish happiness by pursuing happiness itself is you're reminded of you don't have enough and you're focused on yourself. And actually a pathway to happiness, one of the secrets, is to focus on other people. And generosity is significantly correlated with happiness. And empathy is correlated with happiness. The reason is it expands your perspective. Your normal peripheral vision, physical peripheral vision, is 180 degrees. When you're in crisis or under stress, physically, your vision narrows to a 30 degree range because you're running away from the sabretooth tiger and you're looking for the tree you can climb to get away. So it's very much an instinctual characteristic. The reason that other people are so important is that we feel ourselves in community, we're reminded of our value. We're reminded of other people and not just our own narrow 30 degree perspective. Our perspective widens. And that's part of the reason generosity is correlated with happiness, is that you're giving, you're focusing on others, you're building relationships. And so that empathy, that ability to really think through others perspectives is a really big deal in terms of finding that route to happiness, that runway toward happiness.

CCB: [00:14:13] I'm going to make another silly CCB comment, and that is listening to you and reading the book, I was so reminded of things that my mother told me. And it's that going back to the simplicity of the common sense of and I think I'm so curious as to how our elders understood this without having the brain-science knowledge. So there's an element that feels like there's something that's inherently human in a lot of what you're talking about.

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:14:52] Yes, yes, absolutely. I've been doing so much work on community and belonging and the extent to which we need other people for both physical health and cognitive health and emotional health. And it's absolutely true that when we're part of a community, we get certain benefits from the community. Right? I get to learn. I get to get how. I get people to provide services for me that I need in order to live and have a good life. But I also have obligations to the community. And I think sometimes we think more about what we're taking from the community and less about what we're giving to the community. But part of the human condition is reciprocity. I give and you give. And when people give something to us at a human level, we feel a responsibility to give back. And so I agree, some of this is just, it should be just common sense. Right? And somehow it's not. Somehow our lives get complicated and complex and busy and we need to kind of return to that. What is the community and how do I gain happiness? Because I'm part of contributing to a greater whole. I mean, another really important pathway toward happiness is purpose. You know, like feeling like I'm making a contribution that matters. And I always like to say, "That's purpose with a lowercase P, not a not an uppercase P". This is not you have to solve world peace. This is not you got to invent the next cure for name the disease. This is waking up in the morning and doing your best. All work has dignity, all contributions to the community, are contributions. And so that is the way to wake up is to remember that purpose with a lowercase P, you know, like I wrote about mom languages not too long ago. Write like I'm a terrible cook. It is not the way I define great parenthood in my life, but by goodness I'm dang good at laundry. So we all have our contributions to make and we can't always compare them against others either because there are multiple right answers. So that's part of the importance.

CCB: [00:17:09] So another one of your secrets is the idea of creating boundaries. And I love the word "Dream Small". I mean, I love the phrase. And at first I looked at it, but what the heck is she talking about? And then, I mean, just looking at those two words like "Dream Small"? And the simple explanation is just so lovely because it does create that perspective and giving yourself a context of kindness to yourself. And that is something that was is very embedded in the book. Just that being kind to yourself and then also to others. OK, so that's a little editorial on CCB. But I would like to move back into the workplace because the idea of the balance and the choices that we have the opportunity to make today in how we work and where we work is also embedded in the book, obviously talking about creating purpose and fulfillment, owning it yourself. So would you talk a little bit about the working together and working alone, which follows the last comments you were making?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:18:19] Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think this is really interesting. Sometimes people push back on the happiness conversation and they say, yeah, but are we just trying to make everybody into an extrovert? I don't think so. We've got introversion, extroversion on a continuum and everybody needs time alone and everybody needs time together. We just need it in different proportions based on our own preferences. And work is fundamentally social. Work is where we get a sense of belonging. And interestingly, belonging isn't just about being with other people. Belonging is a shared social identity. And this is pretty cool. It makes it sticky for me. Our shared social identity when we lived in an agrarian culture was with our friends and neighbors, right. We were churning butter together. We were harvesting fields together. And in the Industrial Revolution we all moved into cities and all of a sudden our social identity started to come from our work. I was up early baking bread and kneading bread with other bakers. I was in the barn putting horseshoes on horses with other farriers. And so our social identity started to come from our work. And so part of the benefit of work is being together with people who are there for a common purpose with us. And part of finding fulfillment at work is really rolling up our sleeves and jumping into tasks with our colleagues. We can get a certain amount of happiness from getting to know people socially, and that's great. However, an even better way to bond is through shared tasks. Sweating is very good for our happiness, literally and figuratively. We need to seek out at work tasks where we can get to know people and solve problems together and figure things out together. We need to seek out work opportunities for stimulation, inspiration, challenging work. The work that makes us most happy is often not the work that we can do with our hands tied behind our back and our eyes closed. It's work where we can figure out something new and we're not sure where we're going. And we're feeling like we might be stretched maybe to a limit. But that is fodder for happiness because it reminds us of our capabilities. We feel so good about that accomplishment. It's causing us to think in new ways more than kind of our tried and true neural pathways. So a really big part of work and happiness is this idea of stimulation.

CCB: [00:20:51] So bring in the stimulation word and then I'm going to jump into that technology area and the balance between Dunbar's number of 150 people that we might be able to cognitively maintain relationships with. And then what has technology done to that socialization, social kind of ability, but also what impact does it have on the workplace?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:21:22] Yeah, I think that's a big question that we are continuing to answer. I think that we are so fortunate that technology has linked us so expansively and we may have been able to develop our networks and develop our social capital to corners of the earth that we hadn't connected with before. So that's a really good thing. Proximity, that sense of closeness is a fundamental part of relationships. So all of that is really good and proximity can be either real or perceived. We can have that proximity through technology as well. I think the thing that we want to be careful of is that we don't get lulled into the idea that technology is enough because face-to-face relationships, when we have face-to-face, that is correlated statistically with less morbidity, with less mortality, we human beings need to be together, in-person, face-to-face. Part of that is because our mirror neurons need to get in sync with each other and we can't sync up in the same ways because we can't read nonverbal as well. We don't have the bigger picture as much on technology. So it's better or worse, right? I think the other thing about technology that's been interesting is that it's made us hyper-vigilant. Right? Like who was 16 months ago would have wished to look at themselves on camera every day. God forbid, someone would rather have a root canal. But we've gotten used to it. It's all good. We humans can adapt. And I think sometimes technology and social media cause us to compare so much with each other. And there's that wonderful quote, "Comparison is the thief of joy". I think we need to be reminded, and we can do this better face-to-face, that we all come with something different, we all come with something unique. And to compare ourselves to others and to be hyper-vigilant about how we're coming across, will take away some of that joy and we can be kind of again, more focused on others versus focused on ourselves and our, I don't know, our Instagram feed, our Facebook feed, our LinkedIn feed and more focused on how we're contributing to the community.

CCB: [00:23:41] I have one of those mom kind of thoughts in my head. My mother said, you know, that not only do things always work out for the best because they are what you have. But that in, from a competition standpoint, compete with yourselves, don't compete with others, because if you're competing with others, you're going to be better than some and not as good as others. And that's not going to make you happy. I just think there's like the little things that just go, hold on to that. Pick up this book, I'm telling everybody that listens to this podcast, pick up the book, and if you don't, if you can't read for an hour, which is probably how long it will take you to read it, just read the conclusion because it's all wrapped up so very nicely. Just reminding you of what the actions you might take to improve your own happiness at work. So tell me, Dr. Tracy Brower. What's next for you?

Dr. Tracy Brower: [00:24:57] Oh, good question. I am just so interested in this topic and where we go from here. I've been doing tons of research on the business benefits of happiness. How we create happy places where place and workplace and work experience contribute to happiness. I'm really continuing to be interested in community, connection, belonging. I think it's going to be really interesting, the choices that we make like we'll choose for the content of our work, but we will also choose for the people that we get to work with. Through the absence we've started to be so appreciative of how we work, where we were, when we work, with whom we work. And so I think the relationship aspect is going to be really, really key. And I think the thing to remember is that happiness ebbs and flows, right? Like, it's not that, if we're doing it right, we're always happy. There will always be moments of ebb and flow. And that's OK. And we need to accept that. And true joy and contentment comes with that ebb and flow of happiness. There's a great one that's similar to what your mom said. It's something like, "Everything always works out in the end. If it hasn't worked out yet, it's not the end". I think it makes for this, like, we've got to continue learning and being curious and exploring. And there's so much to explore in terms of where we go from here, because this is a new beginning for all of us.

CCB: [00:26:31] Thank you so much, Tracy, for spending time with us on the ONEder podcast. I will let all of us know that the ONEder podcast is available on all the streaming services. So you'll be able to find that. And we will look forward to more conversations and more reading from Dr. Tracy Brower, because trust me, there's something every other day available, something new. Thank you so much.