• More than 4.5 million people left their jobs at the end of last year as part of the Great Resignation. Many of these individuals were essential workers in the food service, healthcare, and education sectors.
  • The Reddit forum r/antiwork has become a sounding board for those who feel trapped in a cyclical pattern working jobs that they view as both unfulfilling and soul-sucking.
  • The concept of working “hard” may be to blame. This happens when we approach our professional careers expecting to toil and struggle while looking out for only ourselves as we clamber up a slippery socioeconomic ladder.
  • But most businesses offer solutions that do help other people. Helping others should bring us joy, and any position — regardless of how menial it appears on the surface — gives us an opportunity to do just that.
  • By cultivating joy that can be reaped from offering solutions that help others, our work perspective can change over time. It may not be that Americans are antiwork; we’ve just romanticized the struggle, even though we hate it.
  • If we create an internal narrative of the long-suffering employee that’s pining for retirement, “escaping” to a better position will drag the same attitude with us. Maybe it’s time for us to stop working hard and start working joyfully.

One of Reddit’s most popular forums, the subreddit r/antiwork, has exploded in terms of popularity in the past 12 months. Having ballooned from a little over 100,000 “anti-workers” to nearly 2 million at present, this swelling subreddit has turned into a sounding board for Americans across the country to vent and lament a work culture that many of them deem as pointless and draining. Though job openings and opportunities are at a record high as businesses and corporations recover from the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 4.5 million people left their positions in November of 2021, and many don’t plan to return. 

There’s a simmering resentment in many employees on the front lines, whether they’re in retail foodservice, healthcare, or first-responders. The chorus of growing resentment is railing against these positions that many in and outside of these industries view as underpaid and unfulfilling. Employers have responded, though; many companies are offering better benefits while placing an emphasis on employees’ mental health needs. Yet many are saying these changes aren’t enough and that a drastic shift in work culture is necessary before they’ll return. 

If you’re in a position where you feel overworked and under-appreciated, you may feel tempted to rage-quit your job. But, at least for most of us, simply quitting and walking off into the sunset would spell disaster on many fronts. So instead of ruining your financial future, reconsider how you’ve been taught to think about work. 

Instead of working hard, what if we focused on working joyfully? Instead of becoming antiwork, rethinking how you approach your professional life may offer you refuge the next time that Karen “needs to speak to the manager.” 

Why the Concept of Working “Hard” is Killing Our Work Ethic 

The old adage says that effort is required for anything worthwhile, but it certainly doesn’t say that putting forth effort should be inherently unpleasant. From the moment our education begins, we’re taught to work “hard” above everything else. The belief is that through hard work, we’ll attain our goals, despite having to face fierce opposition and competition from other people, as well as environmental or physical setbacks that are out of our control. But what does that mindset do? 

It creates a perpetual “struggle” mentality, an internal narrative that pits us against the world. Americans score higher than any other country when it comes to valuing our individuality, but our culture can often view success as something that is achieved against all odds, not as a journey toward greater fulfillment; one that is impossible to accomplish without at least some help along the way from others. We glorify underdog stories, a mythic “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative—but under scrutiny, this mentality might be holding us back.

In fact, there’s a great deal of psychological evidence to suggest that a loner mindset is associated with greater aggression towards others, lower life satisfaction, and may also lead to the development of narcissistic personality traits as a form of defense. When we enter into the workforce thinking this way, mental friction, and interpersonal friction is bound to occur. Combine this state of mind with a global pandemic, plus service-oriented jobs that deal primarily with the demands of an increasingly stressed-out public, and the chances of widespread burnout and resentment are going to be high. So is it any surprise that food service workers, medical staff, teachers, and retail store employees are quitting in droves

Becoming Solution-Oriented, Not Struggle-Oriented

If you’re in a position that you despise, or if reading about the antiwork movement has you feeling jaded this year, there are several small points to consider, that may help you to start changing your attitude. Consider that: 

  • Most businesses offer services or products that aim to improve the life of their client or customer in some way.
  • It really doesn’t matter what’s being sold—buying a sandwich when we’re hungry, or a fuel-efficient car that reduces our carbon footprint, both aim to satisfy a real or perceived desire or need.
  • The essence of business, whatever is being sold, is to offer solutions to the problems or wants that we all face and experience in our own ways.
  • Solutions are a good thing, and being able to offer help to those who are seeking it has the potential to make us feel good about ourselves. If we miss this opportunity to find fulfillment, our job becomes just another problem and will feel mundane and miserable, no matter how clever and motivated we are as individuals. 

As employees, we may feel estranged from this fundamentally helpful aspect of business, but in reality, we’re at the forefront of this positive process of offering solutions. However, when we step into our professional role to work “hard”, there may not be much mental wiggle room to find joy in providing others with solutions when we feel obligated to do so. After all, no one likes being obligated to do anything. 

Yet study after study shows us that the experience of helping others can improve our sense of self-worth, confidence, emotional stability, and overall life satisfaction. If work is approached as a battle, then it becomes a battle. Americans aren’t the only people who dislike their positions—a global poll from 2019 shows that 85% of people find their job to be unengaging. 

Though the antiwork movement might be an extreme response to growing dissatisfaction with a slow-changing work culture in the U.S., there are subjective steps that we can take as working professionals to both support ourselves and our coworkers by changing our mindset. 

Instead of approaching a job with a “hard” work attitude, there’s a more radical, but far more freeing option. What about working joyfully, instead?

How to Strive Towards Becoming a Joyful Professional

Before we can understand how to strive towards being joyful working professionals, it is important to remind ourselves of the current divide we place between work and the rest of our lives. When punching the clock is the cause for a sigh of relief, could there be something wrong with that mindset? 

Though every job offer solutions to everyday problems that many (if not all) people face, we’re all guilty of losing sight of this fact. Often, we don’t even consider it all, and without remembering why our position is important, it’s easy to slip into being unhappy at work, as statistics brutally show. We may become passive-aggressive with our coworkers, or focused solely on climbing to the next position without understanding the opportunity for interpersonal connections, growth, and emotional fulfillment that is being offered. Why should loneliness be the number one mental health issue, when we are surrounded by people who are experiencing many of the same things? 

As is often revealed in therapy and counseling sessions, the life lessons that we purposefully ignore or accidentally miss often come back in other forms. Instead of holding out for retirement, or “clawing” our way up the ladder, stop and consider the points that follow before trudging onward. And do keep in mind, some of these tips may not be appealing at first; changing long-held attitudes towards work (or anything, really) can be difficult. 

You can start working joyfully by: 

  • Remembering that you aren’t alone. Coworkers are on your team: Commiserating and forming connections are two different things. True friendships that are made in the workplace aren’t likely to dissolve after you or a coworker moves on. If you both spend the majority of your lax time complaining about your position, you will find that there’s not much else in common with that person later on down the road. All jobs are solution-oriented—find a way to highlight the positive work that you’re both doing, and your connections will be much stronger and supportive. 
  • Keeping in mind that no matter what your job is, you’re helping others in some way—and helping is always something that is worthwhile: As previously stated, all businesses offer solutions to their clients and customers. While you may not always be thanked or recognized for what you do as often as you’d like (or at all), the purpose of remembering that you’re helping other people isn’t for them; it’s for you and your mental health
  • Avoiding a narrative of being the long-suffering, undervalued employee. It will only hurt you. Cultivating a joyful attitude, one that finds happiness in your work, isn’t an escapist’s way to avoid the monotony of the 9-5 drone. Viewing work as either great or simply terrible is similar to the psychological defense mechanism of splitting (seeing things entirely good or bad to avoid processing difficult emotions). The truth is always somewhere in the middle. While many of us are financially obligated to work, we’re also individually obligated to look after our own happiness. It’s up to us to make the most out of our daily lives. Work shouldn’t be the exception—we have the opportunity to make it exceptional.   
  • Knowing when to be selfish and leave an unhealthy work environment: As covered previously in our blog, unhealthy work environments may involve verbal abuse, a blatant lack of fair compensation, favoritism, sexism, and many other frustrating and stressful factors. If you’re putting up with this sort of behavior, leave. Cultivating professional joy in a toxic work environment is like bailing water out of a boat with a cup when the vessel has already capsized. 

If you’ve managed to make your way through this, and still find yourself in an antiwork state of mind, that’s completely fair. The professional world can be rough on us all from time to time—but occasionally, all it takes is a little joy to transform our perspective. In seeing that we’re helping others, we can finally start to help ourselves