The Secret to Being Happy at Work (and in Life)

What's the secret to being happy at work and in life?

It took me 29 years to figure this one out.  And I think the only way to share this is by telling you a story.

This is a deeply personal story for me.  

It's about my friend Erik Heritage:

When I was much younger and had just moved to the city about 8 years ago, he would encourage me to talk to random groups of girls we'd bump into to get over being shy. Once, at a restaurant, I had dropped a pepperoni on my shirt while eating pizza and he immediately looked at me and said, "You need to go ask those group of girls for a Tide pen...and ask one of them out."  Needless to say, he got me to do it.  Well, kind of.  I asked for a tide pen...and then sat back down.
Erik, you see, had this amazing attitude. He believed in taking chances. In having fun. In living life deeply. In enjoying the moment. In building great relationships.

He was a friend, a mentor and a brother to me.  

When I first moved to San Francisco for my first real job at Cisco, he took me under his wing.  He would introduce me to his group of friends in the city, give me career advice and would always encourage me to challenge the status quo.  If you walked into a bar in San Francisco, it wouldn't be a surprise if you saw us catching up over a beer, talking about all different aspects of life.  

Over the years, I grew more and more ambitious.  All I could focus on was moving up the corporate ladder and becoming more successful at work.  I always thought success at work would bring happiness.  

In my mind, I wouldn't be happy until I reached the top.  

I was wrong.  

Over the years, I began to lose touch with Erik.   When I left to another company for a job with more responsibility and better pay, I became even more consumed by work.  I began to neglect our friendship.  I barely hung out with him.  There would be a sporadic Facebook message here and there, but that was it.  I also began to neglect my family too.  I stopped calling home as much as I used to.  I had changed.  All that mattered was getting the next raise.  The big title.  The responsibility.  The recognition.  
One day, about 8 years later, I received a text.

It was a message from one of my good friends, Andrew* (name changed for privacy reasons).  

What I read absolutely shattered my world.

Erik had been diagnosed with cancer.  And things weren't looking good.
I called him - many times - but he would never take my call.   I left voicemails telling him that I was here to support him and that I would do anything I could to help.  I later learned he never wanted me to carry the burden of worry and grief.   

A few years ago, I was incredibly sad to hear that we lost him to cancer.
The day I went to his funeral was one of the saddest and hardest days of my life.

I made a promise to myself that day, that I would do everything I could to help do what Erik did for me:  Bring a smile to people's faces.  Whether the gesture was small or large, it didn't matter.  I just wanted people to feel happiness the way Erik did.  
I know Erik would want us all to recognize that life is incredibly fragile and that we should all take more moments to hug someone tighter, to soak up the sun and to reflect.

I'll see you again one day, Erik.  But before I do, I want to carry on your legacy like I promised.

So here are the 10 secrets to being happy at work and in life:

Secret #1: Be Thankful for What You Have

We live in an incredibly fast paced world that constantly revolves around our “on demand” lifestyle.   

From fast food restaurants (McDonald’s, Chipotle, Subway) where we can get a delicious meal in less than 5 minutes to media like movies and music (Netflix, iTunes, Spotify), we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on demand.
Factor in the social networking revolution and suddenly we’re in a world of information overload. We now receive information faster than ever before. Interactions with our friends, families and peers have become easier than ever.

So what’s the challenge with all of this?

All too often we get caught up in the journey. The chase. The work. The tweets. The endless pile of emails.  

After all, many of us are chasing the American dream of success.
It could be the white picket fenced house. It could be a new car. It could be fame. It could be your dream job.  
And in this process, we become so mired in our aspirations that we forget one key principle to being happy: being grateful.
Do you find yourself constantly thinking about what you want versus appreciating what you already have? Have you ever told yourself that if you were to attain that oh-so-elusive prize, you would finally be happy?

Many people get stuck in this mindset and thus never give themselves permission to be happy.

The irony is that happiness can be attained at any moment that you desire.
Being grateful is a step towards achieving that.  Studies have shown that people who routinely express their gratitude over a given period of time are actually happier (when surveyed) compared to people who express the negative aspects of their life over that same period of time. An example of the types of things people could express their gratitude about include:

  • The warmth of the sun on their skin

  • Good health

  • Having friends that were incredibly giving

An example of the type of things people could express negativity about include:

  • Work stress and deadlines

  • Bad drivers on the road

  • Complaining about a meal that wasn’t cooked that well

Typically the first group of people who expressed their gratitude would be much happier when surveyed. 
These type of studies clearly show that by being grateful on a consistent basis, you can condition yourself to appreciate what you have and in turn, increase your happiness.

The question is why?

Well, it’s quite simple really – our thoughts have the power to shape our emotions. If we’re constantly thinking of negative things in our lives, we’ll suddenly feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. On the flip side, if we’re focused on the positive aspects of our lives, we can suddenly fill ourselves with optimism.

So the question we should all ask ourselves is, when was the last time you reminded yourself of what you should be grateful for? This could be your family, your friends, your career, your opportunities, your spouse, your favorite office chair or your hilarious conversations with your best friend.
Or it could be something as simple as the seeing the sunshine.
Each and every one of us can easily come up with a list immediately on what we’re grateful for. There are moments, memories, experiences and relationships that can bring smiles to our faces.  So take a moment to reflect on what you’ve been blessed with in your life.

You’ll be happier for it.

Secret #2: Embrace Experiences
We’ve been raised to think that happiness is directly related to the amount of resources and wealth we can accumulate for ourselves.
It’s prevalent in the media (which constantly showcases the celebrity lifestyles), the barrage of advertisements from retail companies (buy this purse and you’ll suddenly become the star at the next cocktail party!) and even in our friends and family.
This environment has conditioned many of us to think that material possessions would bring us the happiness that’s eluded us from so long.
If only I had that bright, new, shiny car.
If only I had a bigger house.
If only I had the newest designer clothes.
If only I had more money in my bank account.
Then I would be happy.
The truth is, wealth does matter to an extent. You’ll need enough resources to provide the basic necessities of life and perhaps an extra amount for experiences that bring you happiness (like a vacation, donating to charity and so forth). But ultimately, studies have shown that after reaching a certain income threshold, money has little impact on our day-to-day happiness. 
Let’s dive a bit deeper. A study by Cornell University actually found that people who spent money on material goods only discovered short-term happiness, while experiences provide greater long-term satisfaction.
Think about this for a second.
Material goods get used. They get old. They break down eventually and fall apart. Factor in the fact that you’re agonizing over whether or not you’re getting a good deal, and you can see how buying material goods isn’t always the best shot at happiness. Think forward to when you’re on your death bed one day – will you be proud of all the stuff you’ve accumulated over the years or the amazing experiences you’ve given and shared with other people to improve their lives? 
That’s why experiences are a completely different story. Experiences like going on a vacation, a mission for charity, a road trip, a comedy show or a fishing trip help to create long term happiness because:

  1. It often involves more positive social interaction (experiences usually involve other people with similar interests)

  2. Experiences tend to increase exercise (You’re going somewhere and that requires you to move – yes, I know – it’s so simple but it’s the truth)

  3. Experiences create lasting memories that you share with others – let’s face it, happiness is only real when shared. You can have the best filet mignon of your life, but if you’re not sharing the experience with someone, it’s not the same.

What experiences do you have planned?
Focus on creating great experiences and you’ll find long term happiness.

Secret #3: Blip or Disaster?
When problems arise, many of us panic. Our chests seize up, our breath shortens, our shoulders tense up and our brains are flooded with a stream of worries.  
We feel like the world’s coming to an end. 
We’re human after all. We’ve been designed to feel stress when things don’t go our way.

Yet, if there’s one thing all of us can be absolutely sure of in our lives, it’s this: The only certainty in life is that there will be uncertainty.

The moment we are born, there is uncertainty – after all – everything we see, touch and feel is a new and unknown experience.
These moments continue into our adulthood, yet become less frequent. And instead of being met with awe and surprise and a sense of joy, we meet these unknown situations with a sense of trepidation, fear, and stress.
We often do this because we forget to put things into perspective. And you’d be surprised how a little perspective can go a long way in providing you happiness.

Here’s how you can put things into perspective: Ask yourself, in the big scheme of things, is this a blip or a disaster?

More often than not, it’s a blip, and you begin to realize that the traffic ticket, that terrible meeting with your boss or that argument you had with a friend over who should pay for dinner isn’t that big of a deal.  By doing this simple exercise, you remind yourself not to sweat the small stuff.  With Jerry’s story, it wasn’t “small stuff.” It was a life-changing event, one that could have easily ended his life.  It’s stories like his that remind us that most of the things we get upset about in life are indeed part of the “small stuff. ” His story helps us to put things in perspective and is a reminder of what “serious” issues are. The next time you are experiencing a tough situation, ask yourself, how serious is this compared to Jerry’s story?  Remember, the only certainty in life is that there will be uncertainty.  So learn to embrace it with a sense of perspective.

You’ll be happier for it.

Secret #4: Stop Wallowing

You know you’ve done it before. You’ve yelled out how the world is against you. You’ve pulled your hair out thinking nothing can be fixed. You’ve sat in your room, moping away.  There’s no question about it. It’s incredibly easy to get down on yourself when things don’t go your way.  Self-pity occurs when your psychological state of mind doesn’t have the strength, confidence or ability to deal with the issue at hand. You hit an obstacle, can’t figure out the solution or cope with it, and you end up proclaiming that you’re a victim of circumstance and deserve condolences. It’s a natural reaction when you’re in state of childhood, after all, at that time in your life, you need to do it for survival reasons.  As an adult, however, wallowing in self-pity is an incredibly dangerous game. It can paralyze your thoughts, actions and feelings. When you wallow in self-pity, you feel helpless, like your life is out of your control.

When you say that, you no longer take responsibility for your life.

You can stop this from happening to you. And it all starts with a simple step:

Stop wallowing in self-pity. 
Challenge yourself to be aware of moments when you’re wallowing.
Challenge yourself to accept those feelings.
Challenge yourself to find a solution to the issue or to cope with the feelings of self-pity so that you can move on. 
When you do this three step process, you empower yourself to take control of the situation. You’re no longer ignoring the issue. You’re dealing with it head on.
Stop wallowing and you will find happiness.

Secret #5: Do What You Love

Today, more than ever, I hear about people feeling like they are stuck in a “rut.”
I’ve literally heard of days like the following:
I wake up. It’s really hard to get up every morning. Most days I want to smash my clock with a hammer.
I brush my teeth.
I eat breakfast.
I go to work and arrive exactly at 9 AM, not a minute early or a minute late.
I work for an hour.
I proceed to pretend I’m working for the next two hours until lunch breaks. There really isn’t much work around that I want to do.
I take a lunch break. I eat a sandwich that tastes mediocre to me. It’s the same sandwich I have every day.
I proceed to work in my cubicle for the next few hours. The work is uninspiring at best and tedious.
I watch the clock every 5 minutes as if staring at it would magically make it go by faster.
It finally hits 5 PM.
I go home in glee, only to be stuck in traffic.
I eat dinner, instantly go into a food coma, become too tired to exercise and proceed to go to bed.
As I’m lying there trying to fall asleep, I think about what life would be like to be in a relationship, but I don’t have time for that.
I’m too busy working.
I feel like a hamster running a wheel, stuck in a rut for the rest of my life.

Have you ever felt this way before? 
As if you’re just going through the motions?
Have you noticed that by doing this, you’re feeling the spiraling effects of it not only on your work but on your health, family, friends and relationships?
Would you like to understand how you could empower yourself to breakthrough the drudgery of life?
Because it’s possible – and it begins with one simple idea:
Do what you love.

It’s a motto that we need to live by. Starting today. You don’t want to wait until you’re at the “staring at the white wall in the hospital” stage of your life. Because by then, it may be too late. You’ve got to seize the day.
When you do what you love, work transforms into a mission to change the world into a better place.
When you do what you love, your best work will begin to feel effortless.
When you do what you love, your energy will become contagious and your relationship with others will dramatically change.
When you do what you love, your attitude will suddenly be filled with optimism.
When you do what you love, you find yourself.
When you do what you love, you’ll inspire yourself – and just as important – you’ll inspire others.
So, how do you discover what you love to do?
You just need to ask yourself – what stirs your passion?
Here are some examples below to get you thinking about your passion:


  • What kind of work gets me excited to wake up in the morning? (Finding a cure? Helping the homeless? Creating new technologies? Helping small businesses get financed? Serving amazing food to others?)


  • What type of relationship is fulfilling to me? (Being single, dating or marriage?)


  • If today was the last day of my life, would I be happy with what I’ve accomplished in this world? And if not, how would I change it?

Are you doing what you love today? What’s stopping you from achieving it?
Today, I follow my happiness by following one simple rule: I love to inspire people.
So I host leadership and career seminars, act as a keynote speaker, write books and blog. But most importantly, each and every day, I try to remember that every conversation I have with someone is a chance to inspire him. And so I use that platform as a means to inspire. 
So remember, you can even take small steps in carrying out your passion and have a large impact. 
Life is too short to live someone else’s life. Follow your heart.
Do what you love and you will find happiness. 

Secret #6: You First

There’s one little secret to happiness that we often forget:

You’ve got to take care of yourself first.

Yes, it’s important be grateful, to give to others and to aspire to be great, but remember first and foremost, you’ve got to take care of yourself first.
If you’re deathly sick on a hospital bed, you can’t really do any of those, can you?

Take care of yourself physically and mentally and you will be happier. 

Make sure you exercise consistently. Go for a run. Lift some weights. Do P90X (I did and it changed my health radically in 90 days). Do Insanity (This one is a lot harder. Needless to say I didn’t finish it).   Try CrossFit. Join a marathon team like Team in Training. Get on a running bike. Take the dogs out for a walk. Mix it up. Keep it interesting.   When you workout, you body releases endorphins and you get a natural high. Talk about a quick route to happiness!

Make sure you eat healthy. You’d be surprised at how big of an impact this can make on your mood. Try eating more servings of vegetables and fruits. I used to eat egg and bacon sandwiches in the morning. Now I replace it with a vegetable and fruit smoothie consisting of apples, carrots, mixed greens, pineapples and sprouts. At first it was pretty tough to drink, but after a while it became really easy. And now it tastes amazing and I feel much more energized and lighter every single day (I also lost a few pounds in the process). There are a ton of great nutritional books out there that you can buy. You can also use your common sense. You know that cookies and brownies aren’t healthy for you, so why eat 10 of them in one sitting when you can really enjoy and savor just one? Learn to have some balance in your diet and you’ll be happier for it. 

Make sure you take care of your mental health. Stress plays a huge factor in our mental health that in turn can dramatically affect our physical health. When you feel yourself submerging into an ocean of stress, take a break from what you’re doing. It’s most likely causing it. It could be your negative thoughts, it could be your work or it could be your physical activity. It could even that pesky coworker that you can’t stand working with. The problem is, most of us begin to cling tightly to these environments we’re in, and it causes huge swings in our emotions. If a situation goes bad, we tend to react extremely negatively.

Take a break. Meditate. Meditating allows you to calm your mind. It separates you from your environment and allows you find inner peace. Close your eyes. Think about absolutely nothing for the next few minutes and focus only on your breathing. Now that you’ve re-visited the issue after taking a break, make sure you try to tackle it in portions. If it’s a big project or seemingly overwhelming issue, try to break it down into components you can tackle task by task. It may not become as stressful when you’re looking at climbing a few steps versus climbing a mountain! Then, condition yourself to not react immediately to situations in the most extreme manners. This can also help to reduce stress.

Secret #7: Give to Receive

Many people think that we live in a “what have you done for me lately” world.  Yet why is it that the donation facts prove this theory wrong again and again?  In 2010, for example, The Red Cross raised a staggering $32M in mobile giving in their relief program for Haiti.  In a study done by the University of British Columbia, they gave 46 people $5 or $20 and asked them to spend that money by the afternoon. Half were instructed to spend it on themselves while the other half were instructed to spend it on others. 
Guess what?   The people who spent the money on others reported feeling happier than those that spent it on themselves.  It’s clear that many people thrive on giving. And it’s simple as to why they do it.
It brings them happiness.
When you give to others, you begin to feel a sense of fulfillment and happiness because you’re helping to make an impact on another human being.
When you give to others, you begin to feel important, significant and filled with purpose.
And you should – because you are making a difference.
When you give to others, you feel connected to other people’s lives. And despite all the technology in our lives, nothing replaces a strong connection with another human being.
One of our core needs is to love and to be loved by others. Imagine helping someone get their life back on track after years of painful struggles. The bond you would form with that person would be incredible if you were able to truly help them.
And that is why the secret to true fulfillment in our lives is through giving.
When was the last time you gave?
It could be a donation to the local church that you attend. It could be a micro-loan on Kiva.  It could be walking a blind lady across the street. It could be helping an old lady carry her groceries to her car. It could be volunteering at your local food bank. It could be speaking as an inspirational leader at a career seminar. It could be donating blood.
Don’t end up spending hundreds of hours trying to pick out the perfect situation – planning is great, but not if you over do it.
Start giving.

Secret #8: Enjoy the Moment

We always seem to be stuck in the past or the future.
When we think about the past, we tend to focus on the mistakes we’ve made, the pain we’ve experienced before (remember how tough it was for you to love again after your first heartbreak?), and what we wish we could change. 
If only I could go back in time.
Well, I’ve got some news for you. You can’t. If you’re going to take the time to think about the past, celebrate great memories instead.
When we think about the future, we tend to focus on what’s possible. This is important, because it’s absolutely crucial that we aspire to be great. Dreaming is a beautiful part of being human. It builds hope and can inspire people to do amazing things in the world.
However, there’s a catch. If you spend all your time thinking about the past or the future, you’re no longer in the present. 
If you’re no longer in the present, you can’t enjoy the moment.
Have you ever caught yourself thinking about something off topic while someone was trying to talk to you?
And you’d respond with a blank stare, because you didn’t hear a word that they said?
Be in the present, and your relationships will blossom, because you’ll actually be listening.
Be in the present, and you’ll begin to the little things in life that are beautiful.
Be in the present, and you’ll have more fun.
Close your eyes and listen carefully to what’s around you. Soak up the sun. Watch the leaves fall shake in the wind. Give the next person you meet a real hug. Take your time when you eat – savor every bite. Dance to your favorite song. Laugh until your stomach hurts. 
Be present in the moment and happiness will be at your beckoning! 

Secret #9: Aspire
We want to move mountains. Change the world. Leave a lasting impact. Create a better life for our kids.
Don’t fear it. Embrace it.
Aspire to be great.
When you aspire, you become inspired to do something great with your life. You’re filled with passion. Each and every day becomes a mission to accomplish change for the world. You scramble out of bed with energy versus feeling like a zombie when the alarm clock goes off. 
Motivation is created when we understand our purpose and desires. If you don’t have a purpose or desire, you become a cog in the machine of life. 
To truly understand what your aspirations are – you must answer that single fundamental question: What is your purpose?
Is it to provide for your family? Is it to inspire others? Is it to build charitable foundations to save lives?
For example, I love to inspire others. My purpose to help people live better lives through inspiration.   And that’s why I write. I spend numerous hours on the weekend and late nights just to write. And I do it because it’s a passion. It doesn’t feel like work at all. In fact, I love to write because I know it will inspire people. Understanding my purpose fuels my drive.
Once you understand your purpose, you can build your aspirations around that. 
Aspirations can range from helping someone run their business better through technology, helping a charitable cause, leading a team, being a neurosurgeon to being a Fortune 100 CEO.
What are your aspirations?
Do you want to be the proud owner of a house? Do you want to provide an educational opportunity for your kids that you never received? Do you want to be a manager and leader at your company?   Do you want to get that elusive promotion that you’ve never gotten? Do you want to start a non-profit or business that you’ve always dream of?
 The aspiration is for you to define. What’s important is that you define it.
Aspire to be great and it will fuel your happiness. 

Secret #10: Love With Your Soul
What makes our connections with each other so amazing?
What makes us so unique as human beings?
What makes two people forgive each other?
What makes us fill our souls with overwhelming joy?
What makes life worth living?
The answer is love.
We have been put here on earth for one reason: to love one another.
We all have the unique ability to touch each other’s lives for the better.
We all have the capability to open our hearts.
We all have the opportunity to be inspired by love – and to inspire others by loving.
It can carry you through a long night of work, when it seems like you can’t go any further.
It can unite family members that haven’t talked for years because of an argument.  
It can bring two soul mates together to say “Til Death do us part.”
It can bring a smile to a father’s face when he sees his son walk for the first time.
It can lift the hopes of a homeless person when a stranger offers a helping hand.
It can give you butterflies in your stomach, when you look into the eyes of your soul mate.
It knows no boundaries. It's forgiving. It's joyful.  It's compassionate.  It's why we're here.

Nelson Wang22 Comments