The Real Secret to Being Happier and More Successful in the Workplace

the real secret to happiness and success at work

By Troy Headrick

In “What I’ve Learned about Life while Watching My Father Age,” a blog I wrote several weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been reading On Death and Dying, a wonderfully insightful book written by Elisabeth Kϋbler-Ross.  Throughout that tome, the author argues that doctors need to take a more “human” approach while treating dying patients.  She also points out that the field of medicine stresses the technical aspects of doctoring while underemphasizing the human component.  In “Attitudes toward Death and Dying,” one of the earliest chapters in the book, Kϋbler-Ross makes this perfectly clear when she writes “If we could teach our [medical] students the value of science and technology with the art and science of inter-human relationships, of human and total patient-care, it would be real progress.”  In other words, she thinks that doctors and other healthcare providers are better at thinking of sick people as patients than they are at remembering that the ill are human beings.

The above quote is terribly apropos to the argument I’m going to make here.  One of the things I’ve noticed since returning to America to work after a long absence, is that many Americans are very good at what Kϋbler-Ross would call the “technical” aspects of work and less adroit at the “human element.”  American workers, especially those at the managerial level, prize, above all else in the workplace, something called “professionalism.”  In fact, it could be argued that professionalism is the characteristic most closely associated with the “perfect employee.”  I’m not saying that Americans are, by nature, less human in their approach.  It’s the culture of the workplace in America that inculcates this value in those who work.

Don’t misunderstand me.  Professionalism is certainly needed in the workplace.  All competent and conscientious workers, whether they wear blue collars or white, need to understand that there are workplace procedures and standards and that they have to be followed and lived up to.  But professionalism is not all that’s needed.  I feel that the drive to turn all American employees into “professionals” has created an unfortunate byproduct.  The workplace has become less human and humane as a result.  Thus, in this blog, I’d like to assert that being a good worker doesn’t just mean one is a good “professional,” a term that feels cold, in my opinion.  Being a good worker also means that one should be willing to be a touch “unprofessional” too, as a way of infusing a little warmth into places of work.

I feel very strongly about all this because several years ago I decided to change the way I interacted with others in the workplace.  Coming up through the ranks of academia, I had noted that many university instructors prided themselves on being tough on their students and on not allowing their emotions to “interfere” with how they did their work.  For years, I did the same.  Then, quite a few years ago, perhaps about the time I joined the Peace Corps and went abroad for the first time, I realized that I could stop seeing the people in the classroom as students and start thinking of them, first and foremost, as human beings.

Several interesting things happened after I made this adjustment in my thinking and behavior.  I felt more relaxed while teaching because I had stepped off the pedestal and was no longer the snooty and aloof intellectual.  The students responded by warming up to me and by opening up more when talking about their classroom work.  I shared some of my own life story with them and they started telling me about their lives.  We felt comfortable enough with one another to let our respective guards down.  The way we interacted was no longer awkwardly inauthentic.

Perhaps I was behaving more “unprofessionally” with them, but I was also enjoying my job more and really connecting with those people who’d put their faith in me by registering for my classes.  I started seeing them as teachers too, and I told them that I was learning as much from them as I hoped they were learning from me.  As a young teacher, I’d often dreaded going to the classroom, but as someone who had become more of a guide and mentor, as someone who cared about them and wanted to know who they were, I began to really cherish the interaction that took place during lessons.

If you’re feeling as if work has become a drag, maybe it’s because you need to relax and look at work as an opportunity to really connect with your co-workers at a more human level.  Maybe the way you become more productive and “successful” is by focusing less on productivity and success and more on showing people who you really are.  They will warm to you and respond in a similar fashion.  Before you know it, you’ll see each other more as humans and less as cogs in a machine.  Once this change takes place you will become wildly productive and successful without even trying.

Troy Headrick’s personal can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.

33 thoughts on “The Real Secret to Being Happier and More Successful in the Workplace

  1. That’s how I’ve approached the content on my blog. I’m sharing myself and putting myself out there by just being me. I never realized I was joining a community when I chose to write my blog, but it’s been a welcoming surprise. Bloggers are so gracious.

    Great article. Good read. 🙂

    1. Yes! What’s the point of writing if you’re going to hold everything inside anyway? I just don’t get that. Writing is a VERY SHARING activity! So why not share all the way? Thank you so much for the compliment and comment.

  2. I completely agree with you! Workers focus a lot of times in professionalism when a really simple and genuine human connection is what is really necessary.

    1. Many workplaces feel soulless as a result. That might be why so many people dislike their jobs in the US. (I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but the last time I checked, it was a huge percentage.) People would enjoy going to work if work didn’t feel like work (with all the accompanying zombies). Know what I mean? Thanks so much for the comment.

  3. Great post Troy. I agree with Kubler-Ross, when working in healthcare you have to be empathetic toward your patients especially facing death and dying.

    I work in healthcare as a nursing assistant and coming across so many dominant personalities when it comes to the infirmed, can be daunting. But I treat them how I would want to be treated- it should be simple for doctors and other nursing staff to do that but it gets tossed to the wayside; so professionalism and sympathy is left.

    Most doctors in hospitals aren’t even on staff at that hospital, they’re hospitalists -on call and floating so its hard to build a empathetic relationship with their patients.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. Having lived overseas where cultural expectations about work are different from American expectations, I see that there is a kind of impersonal coldness in many American workplaces. This, I think, makes people alienated from one another at their jobs. I’m not saying this is 100 percent true all the time in all workplaces. But I think people would generally feel better about their jobs and the work do while on their jobs if people tried to make things a bit more human and humane. I truly appreciate your comment.

      By the way, have you found a secret to making the hospitals where you work happier places? If so, why not share it here?

  4. 𝙰𝚠𝚎𝚜𝚘𝚖𝚎 𝚙𝚘𝚜𝚝, 𝚃𝚛𝚘𝚢!
    𝙷𝚊𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚕𝚒𝚟𝚎𝚍 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚠𝚘𝚛𝚔𝚎𝚍 𝚒𝚗 𝙰𝚖𝚎𝚛𝚒𝚌𝚊 𝚊𝚕𝚕 𝚖𝚢 𝚕𝚒𝚏𝚎, 𝙸 𝚊𝚖 𝚊𝚕𝚕-𝚝𝚘𝚘-𝚏𝚊𝚖𝚒𝚕𝚒𝚊𝚛 𝚠𝚒𝚝𝚑 𝚝𝚑𝚎 “𝚌𝚘𝚕𝚍” 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚒𝚗𝚑𝚞𝚖𝚊𝚗𝚎 𝚠𝚘𝚛𝚔𝚙𝚕𝚊𝚌𝚎 𝚢𝚘𝚞 𝚍𝚎𝚜𝚌𝚛𝚒𝚋𝚎. 𝙰𝚜 𝚢𝚘𝚞 𝚙𝚘𝚒𝚗𝚝𝚎𝚍 𝚘𝚞𝚝, 𝚗𝚘𝚝 𝚊𝚕𝚕 𝚙𝚎𝚘𝚙𝚕𝚎 𝚘𝚛 𝚙𝚕𝚊𝚌𝚎𝚜 𝚏𝚒𝚝 𝚒𝚗𝚝𝚘 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚜 𝚌𝚊𝚝𝚎𝚐𝚘𝚛𝚢. (𝚃𝚑𝚊𝚗𝚔𝚏𝚞𝚕𝚕𝚢!) 𝚃𝚑𝚎𝚛𝚎 𝚊𝚛𝚎 𝚖𝚊𝚗𝚢 𝚌𝚘𝚖𝚙𝚊𝚜𝚜𝚒𝚘𝚗𝚊𝚝𝚎 𝚙𝚎𝚘𝚙𝚕𝚎 𝚕𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚠𝚘𝚛𝚔𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚕𝚕 𝚊𝚌𝚛𝚘𝚜𝚜 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚜 𝚌𝚘𝚞𝚗𝚝𝚛𝚢. 𝙱𝚞𝚝 𝚊𝚜 𝚊 𝚠𝚑𝚘𝚕𝚎, 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚌𝚊𝚙𝚒𝚝𝚊𝚕𝚒𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚌 𝚜𝚘𝚌𝚒𝚎𝚝𝚢 𝚟𝚊𝚕𝚞𝚎𝚜 𝚎𝚏𝚏𝚒𝚌𝚒𝚎𝚗𝚌𝚢 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚐𝚛𝚘𝚠𝚝𝚑 𝚊𝚋𝚘𝚟𝚎 𝚊𝚕𝚕 𝚎𝚕𝚜𝚎. 𝙰𝚗𝚍 𝚞𝚗𝚏𝚘𝚛𝚝𝚞𝚗𝚊𝚝𝚎𝚕𝚢 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚜 𝚝𝚎𝚗𝚍𝚜 𝚝𝚘 𝚖𝚎𝚊𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚝𝚒𝚖𝚎 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚛𝚎𝚜𝚘𝚞𝚛𝚌𝚎𝚜 𝚜𝚙𝚎𝚗𝚝 𝚘𝚗 𝚌𝚛𝚎𝚊𝚝𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚜𝚞𝚜𝚝𝚊𝚒𝚗𝚊𝚋𝚕𝚎, 𝚕𝚘𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚎𝚗𝚟𝚒𝚛𝚘𝚗𝚖𝚎𝚗𝚝𝚜 𝚒𝚜 𝚘𝚏𝚝𝚎𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚏𝚒𝚛𝚜𝚝 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚝𝚘 𝚐𝚘. 𝚃𝚑𝚒𝚜 “𝚋𝚞𝚜𝚒𝚗𝚎𝚜𝚜 𝚖𝚘𝚍𝚎𝚕” 𝚊𝚝𝚝𝚒𝚝𝚞𝚍𝚎 𝚏𝚘𝚞𝚗𝚍 𝚒𝚗 𝚊𝚕𝚖𝚘𝚜𝚝 𝚎𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚢𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚠𝚎 𝚍𝚘, 𝚋𝚢 𝚍𝚎𝚏𝚊𝚞𝚕𝚝, 𝚛𝚎𝚍𝚞𝚌𝚎𝚜 𝚙𝚎𝚘𝚙𝚕𝚎 𝚝𝚘 𝚏𝚒𝚐𝚞𝚛𝚎𝚜 𝚘𝚗 𝚊 𝚜𝚙𝚛𝚎𝚊𝚍𝚜𝚑𝚎𝚎𝚝. 𝙸𝚝 𝚒𝚜 𝚍𝚎𝚑𝚞𝚖𝚊𝚗𝚒𝚣𝚒𝚗𝚐–𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚒𝚗 𝚖𝚢 𝚟𝚒𝚎𝚠–𝚊 𝚖𝚊𝚓𝚘𝚛 𝚙𝚕𝚊𝚢𝚎𝚛 𝚒𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚖𝚊𝚗𝚢 𝚙𝚛𝚘𝚋𝚕𝚎𝚖𝚜 𝙰𝚖𝚎𝚛𝚒𝚌𝚊 𝚏𝚊𝚌𝚎𝚜 𝚝𝚘𝚍𝚊𝚢. 🕊

    1. You’ve put it better than I did in my piece! I’ve always found it interesting that when an American asks another American “What do you do?” he or she means “What is your job?” In other places, “What do you do?” would certainly mean something else and lead to an entirely different kind of response. Here’s another thing. When I lived and worked overseas, I almost never felt work-related stress. I suppose I’m indirectly hinting at the value of traveling. Since I’ve lived for almost twenty years overseas, things (that many others might not notice) make a strong impression on me. Yes, the “business model” has become THE MODEL. Many Americans even thought Trump would be a good president because he is a businessman and has made a lot of money. Again, you’ve left a really thoughtful comment. Thanks so much!

      1. 𝚃𝚑𝚊𝚗𝚔𝚜! 𝙸𝚝’𝚜 𝚜𝚘𝚖𝚎𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝙸 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚔 𝚊𝚋𝚘𝚞𝚝 𝚘𝚏𝚝𝚎𝚗.
        𝚆𝚑𝚎𝚛𝚎 𝚍𝚒𝚍 𝚢𝚘𝚞 𝚕𝚒𝚟𝚎 𝚘𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚜𝚎𝚊𝚜?

      2. Hi, Snapdragon! I’ve been super busy recently and so I apologize for the tardiness of my response. I’ve been told that I think too much, and I sometimes have to remind myself to “get out of my head” and to experience the “outer” world. I lived for about 18 years as an American expatriate. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-90s in Poland. After that, after working for about three years on my PhD, I went the United Arab Emirates and then to Turkey and finally to Egypt, the place where I met my Egyptian wife. I highly recommend that all educators consider leaving America for a time to make real money. Sadly, the only way for an American educator to ever “get ahead” is to leave the country and go where teachers are more appreciated and much better paid.

      3. 𝙽𝚘 𝚠𝚘𝚛𝚛𝚒𝚎𝚜! 𝙸 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚔 𝚒𝚝’𝚜 𝚐𝚘𝚘𝚍 𝚝𝚘 𝚞𝚗𝚙𝚕𝚞𝚐. 𝙰𝚗𝚢𝚠𝚊𝚢, 𝚝𝚑𝚊𝚗𝚔𝚜 𝚏𝚘𝚛 𝚜𝚑𝚊𝚛𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚢𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚎𝚡𝚙𝚎𝚛𝚒𝚎𝚗𝚌𝚎. 𝙸 𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚢 𝚖𝚞𝚌𝚑 𝚟𝚊𝚕𝚞𝚎 𝚝𝚛𝚊𝚟𝚎𝚕𝚒𝚗𝚐; 𝙸 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚔 𝚒𝚝’𝚜 𝚜𝚘 𝚒𝚖𝚙𝚘𝚛𝚝𝚊𝚗𝚝 𝚝𝚘 𝚜𝚎𝚎 𝚍𝚒𝚏𝚏𝚎𝚛𝚎𝚗𝚝 𝚙𝚕𝚊𝚌𝚎𝚜 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚌𝚞𝚕𝚝𝚞𝚛𝚎𝚜. 𝙼𝚢 𝚑𝚞𝚜𝚋𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝙸 𝚑𝚊𝚟𝚎 𝚍𝚎𝚏𝚒𝚗𝚒𝚝𝚎𝚕𝚢 𝚝𝚘𝚢𝚎𝚍 𝚠𝚒𝚝𝚑 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚒𝚍𝚎𝚊 𝚘𝚏 𝚕𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚋𝚛𝚘𝚊𝚍, 𝚏𝚘𝚛 𝚖𝚊𝚗𝚢 𝚛𝚎𝚊𝚜𝚘𝚗𝚜. 𝙷𝚎𝚕𝚜𝚒𝚗𝚔𝚒 𝚒𝚜 𝚘𝚗𝚎 𝚘𝚏 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚏𝚊𝚟𝚘𝚛𝚒𝚝𝚎 𝚙𝚕𝚊𝚌𝚎𝚜, 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚒𝚜 𝚌𝚎𝚛𝚝𝚊𝚒𝚗𝚕𝚢 𝚊 𝚜𝚘𝚌𝚒𝚎𝚝𝚢 𝚝𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝚌𝚎𝚕𝚎𝚋𝚛𝚊𝚝𝚎𝚜 𝚎𝚍𝚞𝚌𝚊𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗. 🕊

      1. Sounds interesting. I’ve been so busy recently that I’ve barely had time to listen to my own thoughts. I guess that’s the way we human beings have to live right now though. My wife and I are looking at some plans that would give me a chance for an early retirement and an opportunity to live a slower, more contemplative lifestyle. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been working for decades now and am looking for the nearest off ramp. Luckily, my wife is from an overseas country and we have a place to live there where we could so something entirely different.

      2. we must be close to the same age; I’m looking at a few more years until retirement and then take things a bit slower. what a nice option to possibly live overseas!

      3. I think we are close in age. There’s no way to retire now in the US because I wouldn’t have the money to swing it even though I’ve done a pretty good job of saving and putting a few good investments in place. For example, I own some income-producing properties. I would only be able to retire now someplace else, a place where a person could live really well on a modest income. Plus, my wife’s family are very entrepreneurial and so my brother-in-law wants to get me involved in a few things, but at a much slower pace. You should look into the possibility of retiring abroad. Why not? What’s holding you back? By the way, you can contact me at I could give you one or two pointers that you might be interested in.

      4. I had my first experience of living abroad lat year when we spent a couple of months in London. We loved it, and we said we could retire there, but I think it is extremely expensive. Plus it would be hard to be so far from family and friends. But I would be curious to hear what you have to say. I’ll be in touch, and thanks for the offer!

  5. Oh, this is so spot on! I went from one job (in healthcare) where we were encouraged to see patients as people, to one where it was only about the “metrics”. From that job, to one outside healthcare, where anything that even humanized the customer or yourself was utterly and fully derided, and personal boundaries were not allowed, sent me into a mental health crisis.
    We’re humans, we have needs not just at home, but in the workplace, where most of us spend more time that we do at home. To beat that down into a spreadsheet is insulting to not just the worker bees, but humans overall.

    1. Thank you, Liz. By the way, I’ve been super busy recently, so I have to apologize for the tardiness of my response. I think I really started seeing the “coldness” of many work environments when I left America and lived for nearly two decades in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the countries where I lived and worked, people didn’t define themselves by the work the did and their work lives were kept separate from their personal lives. (And they thought of their personal lives as much more important than who they were as workers.) Yes, “metrics” seems to be the new thing–and, often, the most important thing. Your comment is also so spot on. In fact, you did a better job explaining this whole phenomenon in your comment than I did in my blog. Thank you for sharing your story and for always writing such wonderful comments.

      1. *shock, horror* You have a LIFE outside this world, and as an educator with Fall term coming up you’re busy?? *where, oh where, is my sarcasm font when I need it?* No worries, Troy! I always appreciate your encouraging responses and kindness.
        I truly wish Americans valued homelife more than work. It’s not doing good things for us as a nation to ignore that.

Leave a Reply