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Is it better to be happy, excited, or satisfied at work?

For instance: Satisfaction is a great feeling, but it might take years at a job before you truly feel satisfied.

Is it better to be happy, excited, or satisfied at work?
[Photo: Niti K/Unsplash]

There are many different positive emotions: anticipatory emotions when you’re looking forward to something; momentary emotions when you achieve something wonderful; favorable emotions when you’re doing something fun. And then, there are sustained emotions that reflect an overall mood or state. But which type of emotion should you strive to feel at work? Is it better to be happy, excited, or satisfied?

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As I discuss in my new book Bring Your Brain to Work, the most engaged people in the workplace are ones who view their work as a calling. They see the tasks they perform as connecting to a mission that serves a purpose greater than themselves. This calling orientation creates a desire for people to do their best work and to develop a team that accomplishes significant goals.

When you view your work as a calling, then workplace success leads you to a sustained sense that you have made an important contribution with your efforts. That ultimately leads to a general sense of satisfaction at work.

In the long run, then, satisfaction is a wonderful emotion to experience at work, because it reflects a recognition that you have achieved something important. But, you cannot be satisfied on day one of the job. Indeed, it might take years before you truly feel like a sense of satisfaction is warranted.

That means that other positive emotions also play a crucial role in helping you to feel rewarded for your efforts. Those butterflies in the stomach that come when you’re excited about an upcoming event matter as well. They signal that you are motivated to engage with a positive or desirable goal.

There is something wonderful about waking up in the morning and knowing that you have the chance to do something that will be valuable or important. The alternative, of course, is waking up in the morning with a negative anticipatory emotion (like dread) in which you fear for the drudgery and boredom you face that day. Worse yet, you might become numb to the workplace altogether and wander through the day in a stupor.

So, finding desirable aspects of your job that you look forward to can help you stay motivated to bring your best self to work consistently.

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Along the way, it is important to celebrate your accomplishments. When you finish a big project, don’t just check it off your to-do list and move on. Take a moment to read over what you did. Savor the moment. If you worked with a team, give some high fives all around. There will always be more work to do, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying something you have completed.

For example, academic papers take a long time to develop. It might take a few years from an initial idea until the experiments are completed and analyzed. From there, it might take a few months to write up the paper and another year to shepherd it through the review process. By the time the paper is accepted for publication, you may just be tired of the project. Nonetheless, every time I get a paper accepted for publication, I take a moment to update my academic résumé and to enjoy the moment. If I have coauthors, I will write them and congratulate them as well. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about a success.

And finally, take note of those aspects of your day-to-day job that you really love. If you like having good conversations, then find the time to do that more often. If it excites you to dig into a new data analysis, then find ways to put more of that on your schedule.

Even though your overall job satisfaction isn’t driven by the specific tasks you do, it doesn’t hurt to spend some time doing things on a daily basis that you think are fun. After all, the best way to do what you should do is to have that thing also be what you want to do.

So, the answer to the question of which kind of positive emotion you should try to experience at work really is: all of them.

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