American Association for Physician Leadership

Team Building and Teamwork

Happiness Traps and How to Escape Them Through Purpose, Hope and Friendship

Annie McKee, PhD

October 19, 2017


Why do so many leaders accept unsatisfying work, stress, looming burnout and chronic misery? You can find fulfillment through these essential concepts.

Positive emotions aroused by being engaged and valued have many benefits, including less stress and more productivity. Business adviser Annie McKee explains how to get started.

Life is too short to be unhappy at work. Yet many professionals are just that: disengaged, unfulfilled and miserable. Take “Sharon,” a vice president at a global energy firm and one of my consulting clients. She has risen through the ranks by following the rules. She makes a lot of money, is married to a man she loves and is devoted to her children. She had everything she thought she wanted, but she wasn’t happy.

annie mckee

Annie McKee

Sharon blamed others for her disenchantment. She believed that the executive team was disconnected from the day-to-day business. She complained about management’s bad decisions. All of her teammates seemed to be slacking.

After coaching Sharon for several months, I grew to like her. But even I found her complaints tedious. When we finally got past why everyone else was to blame for her dissatisfaction, she said, “I know I could probably make things better. I’m just so busy. Besides, it doesn’t matter whether I’m happy or not. What matters is that I hit my targets.”

Sharon admitted that her stress and unhappiness were affecting her work relationships, her family and her health. What she didn’t see was the link between her growing misery and her dwindling ability to do her job effectively.

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For years we’ve heard about dismal levels of employee engagement. Numerous studies show that close to two-thirds of employees in the U.S. are bored, detached or jaded and ready to sabotage plans, projects and other people. Why do so many of us accept unsatisfying work, high levels of stress, looming burnout and chronic unhappiness?


Throughout my 30-year career advising leaders around the globe, I’ve discovered that too many of us fall into common “happiness traps” — destructive mindsets and ways of working that keep us stuck, unhappy and ultimately less successful. Three of the most common happiness traps — ambition, doing what’s expected of us and working too hard — seem productive on the surface but are harmful when taken to the extreme.

The ambition trap: The drive to achieve goals and further our careers pushes us to be and do our best. But when ambition is coupled with hypercompetitiveness and a single-minded focus on winning, we get into trouble. We become blind to the impact of our actions on ourselves and others; relationships are damaged and collaboration suffers; we start chasing goals for the sake of hitting targets; and work begins to lose its meaning. That’s exactly what happened to Sharon.

The “should” trap: Doing what we think we should do rather than what we want to do is another trap. Too many workplace norms — what I call “shoulds” — force us to deny who we are and to make choices that hinder our potential and stifle our dreams. To be successful in most companies, people have to obey shoulds about how to dress, how to talk, whom to associate with and sometimes even how to have a life outside work. Such unspoken norms take a toll when we feel we must hide who we are or pretend to be someone we’re not. Living in hiding makes anyone unhappy. And it drags down professional performance as commitment wanes, and displeasure with work and colleagues eventually becomes obvious.

The overwork trap: Some of us react to the pressures of the “always on” 21st century workplace by spending every waking moment working or thinking about work. Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral: More work causes more stress; increased stress causes our brains to slow down and compromises our emotional intelligence; less creativity and poor people skills harm our ability to get things done. What’s more, obsession with work can stem from our inner demons: It feeds on our insecurities, assuages our guilt when we see others overwork or helps us escape personal troubles.

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If you’ve fallen into one of these traps, the question is, how can you get out? Luckily, some of the same leadership skills and mindsets that make you effective at work can help you rediscover happiness there.


There are 12 emotional intelligence competencies, all of which can help you avoid or break free from the happiness traps. I believe that three — emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control and organizational awareness — are particularly useful when casting off an outdated mindset.

Emotional self-awareness is the capacity to notice and understand your feelings and to recognize how they affect your thoughts and actions. Then you need to act. This is where emotional self-control comes in: It enables you to tolerate the discomfort that arises when you understand what you are doing to yourself. Finally, organizational awareness — an understanding of your work environment — can help you distinguish between what is coming from inside you and what’s coming from your company.

Happiness doesn’t happen magically — we must actively seek meaning and purpose in our day-to-day activities, foster hope in ourselves and others, and build friendships.

Meaning and purpose: Humans are wired to seek meaning in everything we do. Passion for a cause fuels energy, intelligence and creativity. Yet it’s easy to lose sight of what we value and ignore the aspects of work that matter to us.

Each of us finds meaning and purpose in work differently, but in my experience with people from all over the globe and in all professions, I’ve seen some similarities: We want to fight for a cause we care about. We want to create and innovate. We want to fix problems and improve our workplaces. We want to learn and grow.

Hope: Hope makes it possible to navigate complexity; handle stress, fear and frustration; and understand hectic organizations and lives. To be happy at work, we must feel that our responsibilities and opportunities fit a personal vision, and we must imagine pathways that lead to it. Hope is about planning — it encourages us to chart a course and to take action.

Friendship: Good relationships are the backbone of successful organizations. When we believe that we will be accepted for who we are — that we have important roles to play and we’re part of a team — we are more committed to collective goals. We thrive physically and psychologically when we feel compassion for others and see that they are concerned for our well-being in return.

Too many people believe that if they’re successful, they’ll be happy. That’s backward. Author and psychologist Shawn Achor says it straightforwardly: “Happiness comes before success.” That’s because the positive emotions aroused by being engaged, fulfilled and valued at work have a host of benefits: Our brains function better; we are more creative and adaptable; we have more energy, make smarter decisions and better manage complexity.

It’s simple: Happy people perform better.

Annie McKee , PhD, is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the director of the PennCLO executive doctoral program.

C__opyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp . Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Annie McKee, PhD

Annie McKee, PhD, is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program.

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