I read recently that researchers in the field of positive psychology define happiness as subjective well being or how satisfied and meaningful our lives are based on our own personal assessment. According to those researchers, the key ingredients to being happy at work are having a sense of meaning and purpose, and having the feeling that our efforts are making a positive difference in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Based on that definition, it would seem reasonable to assert that all non-profit executive directors should be happy. The work has meaning and purpose doesn’t it? The efforts are making a positive difference in the lives of others, right?
The truth is, many of the EDs that I coach can’t describe what being happy is to them. They can’t articulate how they can identify and pursue those things that would improve the quality of their lives. So much of their time and energy is spent striving to make their organizations successful or viable or worthy of funders’ attention that they haven’t taken the time to think about what defines their own brand of happiness.
According to Leo Bormans, the author of The World Book of Happiness: The Knowledge and Wisdom of One Hundred Happiness Professors from All Around the World, there are 5 key ingredients to happiness. Referring to those ingredients, EDs can take some steps to promote their own happiness in their work.
1. Nurturing positive and meaningful relationships with others.
Many executive directors spend far too much of their lives at work and because of the nature of the position, they sit in a very lonely place there: not part of the board of directors that directs them and not part of the staff team that they direct. Spending quality time with people who understand and care about you and your concerns is a proven way to improve your happiness quotient as an ED. Being intentional about nurturing relationships with family, friends and a network of colleagues who understand what your work entails takes time, but the payoff is a happier outlook.
2. Focus beyond yourself.
This one usually isn’t a problem for executive directors. Much of their work forces them to focus beyond themselves, sometimes to the detriment of their own happiness and health. However, finding ways to contribute and give back through helping others and sharing talents and skills, can really improve personal assessments of happiness. To make sure they aren’t just doing more of the same thing they do at work, EDs need to think outside of the box to identify activities that allow them to give back while nurturing their own spirit. Mentoring a young person, volunteering in a program that is totally different from the daily work, or contributing to a community cause are some ways to focus beyond self.
3. Live with gratitude.
It is easy to slip into a state of being where we see the glass as half empty rather than half full. Being constantly busy and stressed makes it easy to forget to look for the positive and to show appreciation to others. According to Margaret Cousins, an Irish suffragist in the early twentieth century, “Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary.” Two for the price of one – improving your own happiness and that of others by showing gratitude and appreciation.
4. Lead your own life.
Here’s the thing: executive directors work hard, usually long hours and often for less pay than their counterparts in the corporate world. However, there’s nowhere in the job description that says that to be successful, the executive director must give up her personal life and those things that make her happy and whole. So why do so many EDs do just that? Here’s what the job description should say: Come to work, be productive while you are here and then for heaven’s sake, go home, spend lots of quality time with your loved ones, do the other things that turn your crank (belly dancing? hang gliding?), and be a better ED for having a life outside of work.
5. Have fun!
Another thing that the job description doesn’t say and should, is have fun. My Mom used to say that all work and no play makes Rhonda a dull girl (thanks Mom!). As clichéd as that sounds, it couldn’t be more true. Laughing out loud, sharing good times with friends and family, and doing things that make your heart sing will make you a better ED – guaranteed!