Avoid Getting Trapped: 3 Mind Traps to Avoid If You Want to Be Happy at Work 

Man sitting at a desk with his hands on his forehead looking frustrated.

Life is too short to be unhappy, wouldn’t you agree? Many times, it is our workplace stress that breeds unhappiness. Many of us accept high levels of stress, looming burnout, chronic unhappiness, and unsatisfying work. Yet, assuming we have the freedom to choose our career and our professional life, what leads us to accept this state of unhappiness? 

In an article from the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Happiness Traps: How We Sabotage Ourselves at Work,” the author suggests we accept this unhappiness because we are trapped. Trapped by one, or all, of three common happiness traps: The Ambition Trap, The Should Trap, and The Overwork Trap. Read on to learn what are they, how they contribute to unhappiness at work, and what can we avoid these three traps?

The Ambition Trap

With the Ambition Trap, you can get trapped by doing what is expected of you and working too hard. Ambition is a positive trait, but when coupled with hyper-competitiveness and a single-minded focus on winning (sometimes at all costs), it can lead to trouble. We often see this hyper-competitiveness in people who grew up with the expectation of constantly striving and moving up. The parents, teachers, and coaches who asked, “What did you achieve today?” or said, “There is no finish line,” meant well, yet for some of us, we internalized this as: 

  • There is always another goal to accomplish,
  • I must always be the best, have the best, do the best, and if I don’t, I am a loser. All you 80’s kids recall the famous saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

The bottom line is that when people are both ambitious and hypercompetitive – nothing is ever enough – they are constantly chasing the next goal, often only to hit the next goal. Over time, relationships get damaged, collaborations disintegrate, and work loses meaning.

Ask yourself two questions: “Do you think about success in terms of upwards gains, continually acquiring more, and doing better? Do you feel if someone else wins, you are more likely to lose?” These two questions come from Dr. Pippa Grange’s book Fear Less, a terrific book that everyone should read.

The Should Trap

The Should Trap focuses on the unwritten rules that you think you “should” be doing instead of focusing on what you really want as your authentic self. For example, you might encounter unwritten rules about how you should dress for work, who you should associate with, and what time you need to sign in to your Slack Channel. The Should Trap often starts early, even influencing the type of career to pursue based on our parents’ expectations. For example, Marietta grew up in a family where it was expected that everyone would become a doctor – whether they wanted to be a doctor was irrelevant. To not become a doctor was grounds for expulsion from the family.

Research backs up how widespread this trap is within the workplace. According to a Deloitte-sponsored study of 6,000 workers, 61% said they felt that they had to “cover” in some way to fit in at work. The participants in this study shared that they actively hid or downplayed personal aspects of their personalities, lives, and identities to fit in. While this study is a few years old, and since the pandemic, many of our traditional workplace norms have shifted, many still fall into this trap. Many feel they need to hide who they are to conform to norms they think they should represent, which leads to unhappiness over time. 

It is important to note that we are not advocating for complete nonconformance and rejection of cultural norms. We are advocating for getting a clear picture of who you are, what you are good at, what type of environment you need to thrive and finding a place that is a better fit for you.

Ask yourself, “Am I doing this work in a company I want to work for, having the impact I want to have, or am I doing it because others think I should?”

The Overwork Trap

The Overwork Trap is exactly what it says it is, the idea that long hours and spending every minute thinking about work leads to success. The reality is that it leads to burnout and the act of being busy. Overworking leaves little time for friends, family, and our well-being. As soon as you start overworking, you begin the long slow spiral downward where you are less creative, less resilient, and less emotionally intelligent. The delicate integration of work and life, especially in American companies, has blurred even more with the move to working online from home in 2020. 

We often try to convince ourselves that if we can only get one more “________” done that we can stop. Unfortunately, there is always one more thing that we need to do. This obsession with work is often a red herring for our insecurities, limiting beliefs, guilt, or escape from other situations. 

Ask yourself, “What are your beliefs about work and life?” “What are the drivers behind your belief that you need to work long hours?” 

So, what’s the solution? As with many things, the first step is to recognize that there is an issue and become aware that you have fallen into one of these identified traps. Next, accept the premise that it is possible to be happy at work! Then, commit to putting in the work to ensure that your work aligns with your passion, values, and desired work environment.

At Evolu, we help high-achieving professionals evolve their careers to live their lives with purpose. If you are not currently doing this, check out our Career Evolution Lab course, which can help you wake up every day inspired to work at a place that values your talents in a culture that allows you to thrive. 

 It’s time to create a happier future, and we can help. 

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