In this post, we feature two of our coaching program alums, who write about making career choices that honor your personal values. Thanks to Danielle Collins and Senka Ljubojevic for sharing their wisdom!

How to Feel Happy at Work – Find Your Purpose

By Danielle Collins and Senka Holzer

Years ago, before I knew myself better, I accepted a promotion that I didn’t really want, but I sure liked the title. And salary.

Never mind that I’d have to manage a team of people who previously had been my co-workers.  Never mind that I’d have less time to do what I most loved in my job – working one-on-one with people, and writing.  Never mind that the burden of overwork would drain my energy and dramatically reduce my free time.

I set aside all these niggling, troublesome thoughts, and instead listened to other voices in my head.

“You should always accept a promotion, no matter what.”

“You should go for the highest paying job.”

“You should be willing to give up your free time, because that’s the only path to success.”

These voices were loud, and they reminded me of things my family had said or modeled.  I let them crowd out the quieter thoughts – thoughts that would have served me better.

You won’t be surprised to learn that two weeks into my new job as a director, I was miserable.  After a committee meeting one evening, I sat in my newly painted office and cried.  I knew I’d made a mistake, and I was already tired from the overtime.  I felt frazzled and spent, rather than productive and creative.

I realized I’d listened to outside voices, and not to the grumblings of my own intuition.  Although I was distressed, I had clarity that I would never again ignore my own heart.

As a coach, you know it’s critical that each of us identifies our most important values.  We, and our clients, will feel immense satisfaction and perhaps even joy, when we align our choices with our internal guideposts. 

Understanding Our Purpose

According to Emiliana Simon-Thomas at the Greater Good Science Center, one of the keys to feeling happy at work is understanding our purpose.  When we have a job that reflects our values, and when we understand how our work makes a difference, we’re more likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled.

This sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Yet it’s not easy.  For years, I tried to understand my own choices and behavior.  What led me to ignore my internal voice, to my own detriment?  How can we feel good at work?  How can we help our clients to experience wellbeing and fulfillment in their careers?

I continued to ask these questions in the coach-training program at UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education in 2015.  When Senka Holzer presented her scientific study on her values-coaching technique, decades of weight lifted from my shoulders. 

Senka hypothesized that not only are people unaware they’re born with some values, but they also don’t understand that they acquire values along the way.  When she began to study people’s value systems, she observed we have two completely different sets of values.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Senka about finding our purpose.  Keep reading to learn how our values impact our happiness at work.

Our Values and Our Work – An Interview with Senka Holzer

Danielle:  Understanding our purpose is a huge part of feeling happy at work.  Knowing our purpose requires us to understand our values.  Why is this so darn difficult?

Senka:  It’s challenging because we hold two completely different sets of values.  Core values are our intrinsic guiding principles.  I like to say they’re part of our “psychological DNA.”  When our thoughts and actions align with our core values, we’re at our best.  We feel energized and alive.

Unfortunately, it’s challenging to identify our values.  And the process becomes even murkier when you consider that we acquire values along the way from outside sources, like our family, social media, culture, and generation.  We may be living each day, attempting to align ourselves with values that aren’t even our own.

Danielle:  I’ve never done that, myself.  [eye-roll]

Senka:  Sure.  Of course you haven’t.  But if by chance you made decisions in the past – like maybe you accepted a promotion that you didn’t really want because you desired the title and the money – then maybe you paid more attention to the outside voices telling you that “appearance” or “status” or “achievement” were more important than your own core values that will ultimately fulfill you.

Danielle:  I know now that some of my core values are “creativity,” “authenticity,” and “adventure.”  It sure was tough to sort though all the voices and hear myself.

Senka:  Exactly.  It’s tough for all of us.  Our core and acquired values greatly affect our thoughts, emotions, and ultimately our decisions.  Unless we consciously evaluate and choose which values to respond to, we tend to favor our acquired values.

Danielle:  And then we’re swimming and sinking in a river of demands.  We react to what seems most pressing or what offers the quickest gratification.

Senka:  Here’s the rub... when we follow the outside voices and pursue our acquired values, we experience only short spikes of satisfaction.  Why?  Because acquired values don’t reflect what innately matters most to us.  People who invest heavily in their acquired values (while ignoring their core values) often find themselves hungry for purpose and genuine fulfillment.

Sometimes our acquired values serve us, but sometimes they don’t.  The key is to understand when we’re stuck because outside voices are holding us back.

Danielle:  You use a music metaphor, which I find helpful. . .

Senka:  Yes, my clients love this metaphor.  When we align ourselves with our core values, it’s like playing our favorite music.  We feel inspired!  Exhilarated!  We model for other people how amazing it is to be authentic.  We give them permission to play their own music, too.

When we make decisions based on our acquired values, however, it’s like playing music, but it’s for other people.  We may not even like the music, but we play it anyway.  Other people don’t get to know the “real” us, and so they don’t connect in a genuine way.

Danielle:  Your scientific study won the 1st Place Research Award at a Harvard Medical School conference.  Which results were most exciting? 

Senka:  Our research showed that the more we focus on our core values, the more we’ll feel motivated in our jobs.  We also enjoy greater wellbeing and satisfaction with life. 

The opposite is also true, of course.  The more we focus on our acquired values in our daily lives, the less motivated we feel in our jobs.  We experience a negative impact on our wellbeing.

Also, coaches will be excited to learn that this specific coaching technique helped clients to focus less on their acquired values.  Coaches can encourage their clients to prioritize their core values, and this leads to greater wellbeing.  Our research showed this positive impact may persist even after the coaching sessions ended!

Danielle:  What happens when our core values match (or don’t match) the values of our workplace?

Senka:  When our values match the values of our organization, then everything is great.  It’s possible our values don’t match, though. 

Danielle:  Like if you value independence, and your work environment demands teamwork?

Senka:  Exactly.  The fit between ourselves and our work isn’t perfect, and that’s totally normal.  If there’s a big discrepancy between the two, however, then we need to be careful.

Research shows that people can’t remain long in surroundings where our values are greatly conflicting.  When the value doesn’t fit, change must happen.

We can help the organization to change, but more likely, we’ll change ourselves by trying to acquire the value of the organization. Then, we’re playing music we don’t necessarily like, because our environment demands it.  Over time, this diminishes our wellbeing.

Danielle:  Thank you, Senka.  I’m so inspired by your work.

Super-Cool Bonus Tip

As a coach, if you want to help your clients understand which values are at play when they make a decision at work, ask them how their body feels.  If they feel light or expansive, they’re probably in touch with a core value.  Also, their voice will sound brighter and more animated.

If they feel heavy or tense, it’s likely they’re encountering an acquired value.  They may hunch over, feeling the psychological weight.  Their voice may sound flat and quiet, and you might hear them say, “I should. . .” a lot.

Remember that as a coach, your goal is not to push for big, dramatic change.  Instead, you want to help your client make small, daily decisions that are aligned with their core values.  Over time, the positive effects will accumulate and they’ll see their life has transformed.


About the Authors

Danielle Collins is pioneering a movement to create a culture of wellbeing where employees in the nonprofit world are cherished.  Using a values-based approach, she helps dedicated people who are burning out to renew their passion.  Danielle earned her Associate Certified Coach credential and is also a National Board Certified – Health and Wellness Coach.

With a Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine, Senka Holzer was positioned to successfully complete a scientific study on her values-based coaching program, Values2Wellbeing.  She completed the Professional Coaching for Life and Work certification during her postdoctoral fellowship at UC Davis.  She now lives in Graz, Austria with her husband and two cutie-pie kids.