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Coloring your Work Life

written by Ruby Lau 28 September 2011

Ruby M .W. Lau, M.Phil.(Psych), is a Registered Industrial Organizational psychologist based in Hong Kong. Ruby received her first degree in Psychology and Master of Philosophy degree in Industrial/Organisational Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She currently works in a corporation and specializes in organization development, training, staff communication, and motivational issues. Ruby's articles are here.

Editor’s Note: Ruby is a senior member of Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association (GCPPA), Senior members of GCPPA have decided to alternate with Timothy So in writing articles for PPND, generally on the 18th of the month. This is Ruby’s first article for PPND in the GCPPA series. We look forward to hearing from other members of GCPPA. Learn more about GCPPA.

Most of us need to have a job in order to earn a living. Assuming you join the workforce after college in your early 20s, retire in your 60s, and have a lifespan of 70 – 80 years, it means you need to work for around 40 years, nearly 50% of your lifetime. It is obvious that the quality of your work experience can affect your overall well-being.

You have heard about your family members, friends, or even strangers being annoyed or pressured by their jobs and seeking the opportunity to leave the current deadlock. However, the truth is that getting a new job does not necessarily guarantee you will have a happier work life. Is there anything that we can do to enhance our happiness at work?

Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade proposed that genetically determined set points accounted for 50% of the variance in happiness across a population, and life circumstances account for another 10% of the variance. At first glance, it seems that we lose control of how happy we are. Fortunately, the remaining 40% of happiness variance can be attributed to our intentional activities.

Flower by Ruby Lau

From my point of view, seeking happiness at work is similar to oil painting:

  1. Having an inborn talent in arts is just the same as the 50% happiness set point, which is programmed before we were born.
  2. An individual may, possibly by chance, get oil paints, canvases, and a set of paint brushes at different times and of various qualities, which is just the same as the 10% variance in life circumstances.
  3. Regardless of the previous two conditions, an individual can still produce a variety of paintings in different styles and with different messages under guidance and with practice, which is just the same as the 40% variance based on intentional happiness-inducing activities at your workplace!

Tips for Coloring Your Work Life

You may argue that you are not the boss, so how can you add the happiness-inducing elements at work? Below are some of the tips you may find useful:

  1. Thank You Word Cloud

    Showing gratitude to your colleagues: A written thank you note with a few words is good enough to show your gratitude towards your colleagues who have provided you generous help or support.
    If you are in charge of staff relations or motivational programs in your organization, I highly recommend launching a gratitude campaign to encourage colleagues to express their thankfulness to each other. Research by Emmons and McCullough found that expression of gratitude was causally linked to well-being and positive emotion.

    A few years ago, the organization that I am working in launched a “Thank You Note” program in which staff members were encouraged to fill in a Thank You Note provided by the company and send it to colleagues to express thankfulness. We did not consider how “big” or how “significant” the favor wasm, since the aim was to enhance awareness both of the importance of showing gratitude and of all the helping and caring behavior that occurred around them in the workplace.

    We might receive a Thank You Note with a message like “Thank your for providing me with useful information for completing the project,” “Thank you for helping me to complete the project during my sick leave,” and “Thank you for listening to my words and letting me reduce my pressure and cheer up.” In addition, the company tried to extend the gratitude effect to the community by donating HK$10 to a charity organization for each Thank You Note that staff had filled in.

    Even if your organization does not have such a program at the moment, you can simply express your thankfulness to your teammates through emails or just sending them thank you notes on your own, perhaps copying their supervisors. Neither costs you much effort and time. On the other hand, it could help you to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and enhance your happiness at work.

  2. Kindness of strangers:
    Helping a man stand up

  3. Finding ways to excel by using your strengths: Positive Psychology scholars Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman describe and classify strengths and virtues that enable human thriving. They established 6 categories of human virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence, which contain 24 character strengths. You can complete the online inventory in order to have a better understanding of your character strengths. You can try to apply your signature strength in your daily work and even seize the opportunity to excel with your strengths.

    For example, if your top character strength is Kindness, you might join your organization’s social services volunteer team. If you find that there is no such team in your organization, you can even ask your colleagues to do social services together. Or you could watch for opportunities to help others on the job. These actions can provide you with chances to show your character strength at your workplace and perhaps enhance your level of happiness at work. Seligman, Steen, Park, and Peterson found that using signature strengths of character in a new way every day for one week made people happier (and less depressed) up to six months later.

  4. Social network

  5. Developing a social network at work: Diener and Seligman found that good social relationships formed a necessary condition for happiness. Lu also reported that social support predicted overall happiness. We spend around 8 hours per day with our colleagues at the workplace, so taking the initiative to develop the social network in your workplace could help to boost your level of happiness.

    Here I am not asking you to organize very large scale events to build your social network, because a simple morning greeting to your someone you see in the hallway or a brief chat with colleagues during lunch is enough to cultivate a sense of happiness. Shawn Achor says, “…when a colleagues stops you in the hallway at work to say hello and ask about your day, the brief interaction actually sparks a continual upward spiral of happiness and its inherent rewards.”

    Actually, many of the well established corporations put great emphasis on encouraging staff to develop social networks through sports and recreational activities. Setting up staff sports and recreation clubs is a worthwhile investment to provide staff members with a platform to connect with others, foster team cohesion, and promote a sense of happiness, which can even help enhance productivity and hence business performance.

Painting by Ruby Lau

The above tips are not asking you to blind yourself and only look for the good side of your job. However, such practices can help you find the happiness-inducing elements that are under your control and thus increase your level of happiness at work.

I have studied oil painting since 2009, and I am not very talented in painting. However, with guidance and practice, my painting skill has improved, just as your ability to induce happiness at work can improve..

All of us indeed have the ability to adjust the happiness level towards our jobs, I hope you can find a suitable way to color your work life!


Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81 – 84

Emmons, R.A., McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389

Lu, L. (1999). Personal or environmental causes of happiness: A longitudinal analysis. The Journal of Social Psychology, 139 (1), 79 – 90

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., and Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9 (2), 111 – 131

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business.

Added by editors:
Britton, K. H. & Maymin, S. (2010). Gratitude: How to appreciate life’s gifts. Positive Psychology News. Includes a chapter by Sean Doyle about gratitude journaling at work.


Purple flower painted by Ruby Lau
Thank You word cloud courtesy of WoodleyWonderWorks
Kindness of Strangers courtesy of Harlan Harris
Social network courtesy of Marc Harris
Village street painted by Ruby Lau

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Kathryn Britton 28 September 2011 - 10:46 am

Your points about gratitude at work remind me of a story I heard last week. A friend of mine is a pediatrician in a busy medical practice. He said that they introduced a program last year for people to send Hero-grams to say thanks for things done well, large or small. After a certain number of Hero-grams, the practice gives a person a gift card to Starbucks (I personally like your donation to charity better…) The number of Hero-grams received also is used as a data point during annual reviews. He said it has transformed the environment because people are watching for things to send Hero-grams about.

I was amused that his personal goal is to send more than he receives. Since he is an absolutely wonderful person to be around, I expect that means he has to be very much on the alert.


Terry Bruns 28 September 2011 - 7:24 pm


I liked your article and your metaphor. This was a good reminder at me to apply the knowledge I have gained from PP to my job as a manager in my organization. I like the idea of the thank you note campaign. I also liked your paintings. Cheers.


www.sarahkaake.blogspot.com 6 October 2011 - 12:44 pm

There is so much in here to munch on in this posting. Thanks for the great article! I’ll definitely check out the online inventory. 🙂

Marianne Auten 6 November 2011 - 9:19 pm

Thank you for a great article. I have been doing workshops for students and faculty on developing a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007) and this article gave me an idea. Those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence/talent can be developed with hard work and persistence, yet we do know that people differ in how much intelligence/talent they have to begin with. I like the idea of describing intelligence/talent as the 50% set point and 10% the circumstances (quality of school we go to, amount of parental support, opportunity for private lessons, etc). That still leaves 40% in our control to develop our intelligence/talent.


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