What the heck is Blue Monday? It won't have escaped your attention that today is Blue Monday - "the worst day of the year". Who says so? And so you might ask. There were some pretty bad days when I was a kid and no one was splashing out colours on them. Blue Monday is an advent of the last ten years and was originally cobbled together by a junior marketer trying to hawk holidays in the January gloom.
Unless you like being frowned at by someone jostling for a turn on the running machine, January is unequivocally the rubbishest of all months. By the time payday does eventually appear most people's bank balances will look like they've been interfered with by Russian hackers. But in fact it's meant to be the bleakness of work that Blue Monday is constructed around. Our dawning despair that we've got another year sitting across from the boss who hates us, hiding anxiously in dreary meetings in mortal fear that someone might ask your view on the last presentation.
In truth rather than being a January thing, there's pretty good evidence that our jobs are an increasing source of year round misery. Work is worse than ever before - and experts are sure of it. Ten years ago if you'd asked happiness expert Richard Reeves how technology was going to change our lives you'd have heard a rather optimistic outlook. "I was relatively upbeat about the role of technology in people's work lives, because it has the potential to be liberating," he told me. "What I didn't anticipate was the pace of communication, and the way it would change the nature of work itself" he added. The challenge for us that more work interruptions cause what Reeves calls a "breathlessness"
There's a physiological reason for this stress. There's a pleasure/pain war going on, partly exacerbated by modern technology. When we get messages and responses to our interactions, our brains reward us with lots of boosts of the pleasure hormone dopamine. Seeking these out often feels more rewarding than concentrating on a superficially dull task. Daniel Leviton in his book The Organised Mind, says that this 'rapid continual switching' - jumping between different tasks - actually burns through the fuel in our brains. The end result is cortisol release - the stress hormone. Come for the fun, and it all ends in tears.
As work becomes more demanding, and more filled with interruptions - this work dread is only likely to increase - unless we think of ways to contain it and control it. There's a lot of evidence that reaching a state of 'flow' can make us happier - and make work more rewarding. Work used to be the place that we found flow but as the repetitive nature of work has changed a lot of flow has been pushed out. Increasingly you only need to look at the cyclists lapping the park or the gamers playing all nighters to see that we're starting to find our flow elsewhere.
It's only when we start thinking about what work is really like today that we can set about changing it. The secret of happiness at work is reachable but we might take longer than Blue Monday to put it right.
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