What does contentment at work look like?

Written by
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

20 Mar 2017

20 Mar 2017 • by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

Critical factors in finding happiness might be an inclusive and friendly culture, colleagues we get along with and finding meaning and purpose in our role. Employers often throw a number of benefits at people too, such as paid sabbaticals and leisure allowances, but how much do these sorts of initiatives actually add to our happiness?


As a general rule, people desire a number of key things from work: development opportunities that align with their strengths, work that absorbs them and, crucially, a role that gives them a strong sense of meaning. In other words, work that provides a solid answer to the question: ‘why am I doing this?’ at the end of each day.

Many employers, particularly in the finance sector, have adopted a transactional view to employee engagement and retention, whether it is in the form of remuneration, promotion opportunities or additional time off. However, those looking for true, long-term contentment at work should shift their focus from quick, temporary fixes and instead focus on factors that are more organic, long-term and specific to them.

But what do these factors look like in every day practice and how should people be approaching them?

Find purpose in your role


Many people believe that success leads to fulfilment, but it is important to understand that it is actually the other way around; fulfilment leads to success. Don’t wait for specifically standout moments in your career such as a promotion or the conclusion of a successful project to answer the question, ‘why am I doing this?’. Instead, do it at the end of each day. This will help find meaning in the day-to-day aspects of your role and enable you to live your life in the present. 

On top of this people should regularly instill themselves with the ‘bigger picture’ of their role, reminding themselves of the part they play in hitting larger, overall company objectives.

Understand that stress can be a good thing

Stress has a bad reputation. Walk into any bookshop and you will find shelves full of self-help books on how to eliminate stress from your life. But there are two issues with this notion. Firstly, stress is inevitable. Secondly, when you look at the data, stress can improve levels of creativity, productivity and mindfulness. The problem, therefore, is not stress in itself, but rather how we frame it and how we manage energy so that we embrace it. Stress can boost absorption and productivity, provided it’s balanced with sufficient recovery time.

Recovery enables people to embrace the inevitable stress that comes with life and increase performance in those moments. To ensure we have sufficient recovery time in our lives, it’s important to identify the activities that recharge our emotional and spiritual batteries, such as going for a relaxing walk or watching a movie. In particular, exercise has been proven to have a significantly positive impact on energy and happiness. Research reveals that exercising three times a week for 30-40 minutes can be as powerful as psychiatric drugs usually prescribed to people dealing with depression and anxiety. 

Work mindfully

Overall, we tend to work very differently to how we did 20, or even 10, years ago. Mass proliferation of technology has evolved corporate working cultures with many people being ‘always on’, and accessing emails around the clock. However, in the quest for contentment at work, people should commit to being less distracted throughout the day by practicing mindful engagement. Whether or not we engage with an activity or situation mindfully is entirely down to us as individuals. The choice is to take inward control and recognise that optimum performance, and peak life experience, result from consistently focusing on doing one individual task well at any given time.

Play to your strengths

Most people believe that they will make better progress by fixing their weaknesses, but this simply isn’t true. Numerous research studies indicate that the most successful people focus their energy on playing to their strengths, meaning the things they’re best at and enjoy doing most. We must all keep this front of mind when seeking contentment at work – both in theory and practice. People should challenge themselves to understand their true character strengths, and create regular opportunities to practice them within their work context. Adopting this approach to working consistently drives positive morale, prolonged retention rates and superior performance.

Finding contentment in our careers goes beyond simply securing extrinsic rewards. Instead of short-term, transactional initiatives, we should focus our energy on the factors outlined above which will enable us to find true, long-term happiness – both in, and outside, of work.