I remember when I received my first acceptance letter to graduate school. It felt like I had won the lottery. And the day I was offered a position as a tenure-track professor felt like being handed the keys to my dream mansion. There’s something incredible, uplifting, thrilling about starting a new chapter in one’s career that is closely reminiscent of getting on an airplane to go on a big trip to Paris that you’d been planning and looking forward to for a very long time. There’s a tingle of anticipation, the thrill of adventure into the great unknown, and curiosity about all the new people to meet and things to do.
The first few months of a new job can also feel shiny and new like exploring a new city. It can also feel a bit overwhelming and stressful too, just like traveling in a new city. But fast forward a few years and grad school ended up being two years of beating my head against a wall to get just one damn experiment to work. Any experiment would do. And the eager anticipation of university faculty life boiled down to a brawling hallway shouting match with another professor over who got ownership of the vacant broom closet (true story). Even in Paris if you’re there long enough, you start to notice things that escaped your attention before: trash, prejudice, traffic, and sinister Parisian public toilets that spontaneously enter self-cleaning mode at the absolute worst possible moment. (Seriously! Halfway through emptying my bowels, the toilet lifted into the wall, disinfectant rained down upon me, and the side panel slid back to reveal a tour bus disgorging passengers expecting the Champs-Élysées, but instead getting the perfect snapshot of me with my pants around my ankles.)
What the hell happens? Why does the excitement of a new job or new city so quickly descend into boredom, frustration, and disappointment?
The answer is dopamine and habit.
All About Dopamine and Habit
Now some of you readers may be thinking, “Ah yes. Dopamine is the pleasure molecule. The pleasure must have gone away over time.” Oh no. Not at all.
The real role of dopamine only unveiled itself recently with the discoveries of scientists like Wolfram Schultz. His research began gathering momentum while I was an undergraduate, and then shook the scientific world while I was in graduate school. In the margins of one of Schultz’s papers, I wrote: “This changes everything.”
Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule. (Yes. You read that right.)
Sure, dopamine is released when pleasurable things happen like eating a still warm chocolate croissant, drinking delicious French wine, a kiss at the top of the Eiffel tower, or exploring a cobblestone street. But dopamine is also released when bad things happen like electric shock, restraint, withholding an expected reward, cold treatment, or stress. If dopamine was the pleasure molecule, why would bad, stressful, punishing things, and the cues associated with them, also release dopamine?
What Shultz helped us understand about dopamine was that it was not the pleasure molecule. Dopamine directs our attention towards things that are better or worse than we expected them be. It helps us learn about things that may be helpful or harmful in our environment. Dopamine is all about prediction error.
When you get that acceptance letter or job offer, it’s a huge rush of dopamine. Most likely, you wouldn’t get picked, but you did! Dopamine represents the celebratory confetti cannon telling your brain that something new, unexpected, and unpredicted just happened.
BUT dopamine release habituates over time. Put simply, we get used to it. If night after night was a three star Michelin meal, we’d get used to it and dopamine would no longer get released. Bad things too. If I had to go through airport security every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, it would just become another thing to do each day. The joy of the new job fades because being in the lab or in the office day in and day out removes all the new and unexpected. No more dopamine confetti cannons. It’s just the same old same old with no prediction error in sight.
In 1971, Phillip Brickman and Donald Campbell coined the term, “hedonic treadmill”, to emphasize the fact that events, both good and bad, offer a transitory blip of joy or despair, but, then you adapt. Brickman and his colleagues went on to show that neither winning the lottery, nor becoming paraplegic, significantly changed how happy a person was in the long run. Despite a huge change of fortune, happiness is relatively stable, as if our level of happiness was set on a thermostat inside our mind. The first week in a new workplace or first week in Paris is full of the unexpected, but then over time, we are irresistibly pulled back towards the treadmill of habit and routine. In a very real sense, we get used to it.
As any habit guru will tell you, the vast majority of our behavior, up to 80% by some estimates, is habitual. Since brains are so expensive to operate, it’s best to save our energy for the tasks that actually need real brain power. Put everything else on autopilot. It’s a survival mechanism baked into our biology. That’s why we don’t have to think about making coffee, getting dressed, or brushing our teeth. And when there’s a change to the plan, you have to consciously, energetically, keep it in mind or else you drive right past the grocery store while you’re on autopilot driving home. Even the best things in life become habitual over time. When Parisians wake up, their dopamine system doesn’t exclaim, “Wow! We’re in Paris! Look at how different everything is compared to home!” They are home. It’s just another day.
So What Can We Do?
Rather than resign oneself to the hedonic treadmill, with a little conscious effort, you can change the trajectory. Maybe going to work won’t feel like going to Paris every day, but you have the tools right now to make work feel more playful, light, and new nonetheless.
Research from Sonja Luybomirsky and Ed Deiner suggest that we humans have at least some control over our overall happiness, up to 50% or more by some measures. While some of aspects our well-being are determined by genetics, which we can’t change, there are many things we can change. We can adjust the thermostat. We can even have different set points on the happiness thermostat for different times of day, or different set points for different places like work, home, and weekends. We can make work feel more like play.
Here are eight different ways to do that:
Purpose and passion – Things feel more fun when it’s meaningful. So align your work with your purpose, set a goal, and go for it. Do the passionate work first. Take one step forward on the thing that you were put here on the planet to accomplish. Here’s two resources to help gain clarity on your purpose: forge a leadership compass OR choose a touchstone for the year.
Curiosity and growth – Remember when you were in kindergarten and learning felt like play? Our natural way of being is to be curious, open, learning, and growing. Learning releases dopamine in the brain. So what in your work do you want to learn, not because you have to, but because you are naturally curious? Charles Duhigg’s fabulous book Smarter, Faster, Better shares the story of the most happy employee on the assembly line of a car factory who beat the boredom of his job by staying curious about what tiny adjustment he could make to improve the efficiency of his one task. How could I make this one step 1% better, 1% faster, 1% safer? So he did, and was the happiest employee on the floor.
Social connection – The longest running research study on what makes people happy all boils down to one thing, the quality of your relationships. A happy life isn’t about vacations, money, or status. It’s whether you have someone to call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared. How does that apply to work? Well one of the longest running research study on workplace engagement and satisfaction asks “do you have a best friend at work.” Not a supportive boss. Not a colleague you can ask for help. A best friend. That language in the Gallup Q12 survey is intentional. If you want work to feel more happy, cultivate a best friend at work.
Gratitude – A recent study compared people in counseling who either wrote a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks, wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings, or didn’t write anything at all. Twelve weeks later, those who wrote about gratitude had better mental health. This finding has been repeated over and over. A regular gratitude practice makes people happier. And need I even say it…gratitude releases dopamine in the brain amongst other neurochemicals. So what about your work are you grateful for? It can be anything. Name one thing daily or write a letter weekly to someone at work and see what happens.
Mindset – I was working with someone in my mastermind group today who felt dread every time she had to speak to a potential donor. She called it “schmoozing” and it felt fake and inauthentic to her. I asked her what her greatest strengths in the world were. She said: connection, collaboration, and her passion for changing the world for the better. Can you spot the mindset shift? I challenged her to stop calling it “schmoozing” and instead call it “connection”. The whole endeavor shifted from negative to positive when she could lean into her strengths. (Psst…now enrolling for the newest mastermind cohort!)
Presence – Have you noticed that when you are on vacation in a new place, one of the best things about it is simply putting your phone down, leaving your laptop at home, and being present. The lure of multitasking via email, that quick to do list item, or phone call just doesn’t compare to the smell of fresh baguette wafting from the bakery. Our brains feel better when we are present and undistracted. How might you structure your workday so that you can be fully present with whatever it is that’s in front of you? Can you turn off notifications? Can you leave your cell phone out of sight in your bag? Can you only open your email browser at certain times each day? Can you put a do not disturb sign on the door? This blog post of managing your email or this one on managing your energy or this one on mindfulness might help.
Play and flow – Some things at work are just inherently fun. I was chatting with a makeup artist who find joy in making people beautiful. And there was an event planner I met who just loves throwing a great party. For them, their work is their playground. Have you ever been so engaged in something that everything else drops away – fears, worries, time, place, even identity all seem to vanish? The task stretches your capabilities yet feels completely doable. It’s effortless as if this is exactly what you are meant to be doing, right here, right now. Researchers like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi call this the flow state and have shown that workplaces abound with opportunities to create this state of play and flow. I find it when I write. When I read. When I teach. When I connect deeply and powerfully with others. What is in your control that you can shift to give you more opportunities to find opportunities for play and flow at work?
Rest - When you are on vacation you generally slow down and rest (unless you are on one of those whirlwind 7 cities in 7 days tours). To achieve a sustainable work wellness, it’s absolutely essential to take regular breaks for rest and recovery. Actually take evenings and weekends off. Take 10 minutes between meetings to just go outside and move your body instead of using those 10 minutes to hurriedly check email, make a phone call, and send 5 texts. Just like little kids at school, adult brains do better with recess after an hour or two of work. Don’t believe me? Check out this research that shows judges make better decisions after their lunch break.
These are but a few of the many many ways to make work feel more joyful. They bring us back to that first acceptance letter or phone call by intentionally resetting our hedonic thermostat to something happier, and triggering a release of dopamine amidst the everyday grind.
For more on how to create levity and wellness at home or in the workplace, I highly recommend Sonja Luybomirsky’s newest book, the How of Happiness as well as the book First Break All The Rules by Gallup.
But better yet, join the Collective Wisdom Mastermind group starting in March! I am curating a group of no more than eight leaders who want support as they make their work feel more like play. We will be tackling each and every one of the eight tools described above and holding one another accountable towards making these changes stick in our workplaces and daily lives. The goal is nothing less than to help you thrive, not just survive, in your careers. Leadership can be lonely and heavy, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are interested in learning more, reach out today at email@example.com or learn more HERE.
If group support isn’t your cup of tea, I have only two spots available for one-on-one support. Might one of them be yours? Apply for a powerful conversation today. No obligation. No high pressure sales. Just pure service until we can tell if we’re the right fit for one another. If not, I’ll make sure to get you the help you need.
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