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Yes, You Can Be Happy at Work: Here's How

How do you turn things around at work? For psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, it comes down to three important numbers: five, three and one.
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/ Source: TODAY

Most of us go to work and count the minutes until we can dash out of the office.

In fact, a Gallup poll found that a mere 13 percent of us actually enjoy the time we spend on the job. And there’s a real cost to that, not just to our emotional state, but also to our health, experts say.

But we can turn all that around just by adopting some simple practices to make our work lives happier and, as an added bonus, our bodies healthier, experts say.

“There’s now overwhelming evidence to indicate that happier people are actually healthier,” Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a "positive psychologist," professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, as well as founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, told TODAY. “I would say that anyone can learn to be happier at work.”

One of the biggest beneficiaries of happiness is the heart, said Marty Seligman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s a large literature which has suggested that positive states are protective from heart attack and negative states are somehow related to heart attack.”

So how do you turn things around at work?

For psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, it comes down to three important numbers: five, three and one.

For five minutes a day, meditate.

First, and perhaps most important, we need to set aside time to meditate for at least five minutes a day, said Mirgain, a senior psychologist from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin.

And the meditation she’s recommending isn’t going to take months to learn: It’s as simple as focusing on your breathing.

“You track the breath and when your mind wanders just bring it back to the breath,” Mirgain explained “We’re training our minds to focus. So, over and over when your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.”

Those five minutes of meditation can turn down the noise in our heads and allow our brains to de-stress and recover.

“In as little as 30 days, 20 minutes of this kind of practice strengthened and built more grey matter in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain associated with attention, emotion regulation and executive decision making,” Mirgain said.

Write down three good things that happened.

But the path to actual happiness may be a lot shorter — you can improve your mood just by focusing on three good things that happen to you every day.

“The research here is, in a week people reported being 2 percent happier,” Mirgain said. “After four weeks of doing the three good things a day, people were 5 percent happier, and in just six months they were 9 percent happier. And that’s something that takes you less than a minute.”

By training our brains which tend to focus on the negative to focus on the positive, we'll begin to see things in a more positive light.

“The default motion of consciousness is to look around your life to find out what's wrong, and indeed that's what psychology's been about,” Seligman said. “And that's perfectly appropriate in a world in which everything is wrong. But what's the appropriate way to approach a world in which there are increasing numbers of positive things? Let's try to open our consciousness to the things that are right.”

Do one act of kindness.

Mirgain’s last suggestion: Extend one act of kindness.

“The reality is when we feel generous towards other people we actually experience greater well-being and happiness,” she explained.

And it goes even further than that, Seligman said. “The nice thing about positive psychology is once you start using kindness more, people like you more and they interact with you more,” he said.

Ultimately, positive psychology can be the shortest route to fixing your life, Seligman suggested.

“The skills of positive psychology are self-maintaining, whereas the skills of psychotherapy are like walking up a mountain,” he explained.