Most of us aspire to such unbridled joy in our careers, but during times of economic stress, loving what you do can be a luxury. A position you intended to stay in only a year stretches into two, then five, and just when you're ready to leave, it turns out your options have evaporated. It's hard to stay focused and hopeful in the midst of a steady stream of headlines about layoffs and unemployment.
The feeling is widespread: According to a recent Gallup poll, only 10 percent of Americans consider this a "good" time to find quality jobs. So how will you last until you can escape?
The emptiness of a monotonous job can be a slow poison. "I feel like I'm sleepwalking," says Caitlyn, who's spent five years in the purchasing office of a real estate company. She'd hoped to find a job at a competitor across town, but now there's no movement there. "I can't even say I'm good at what I do anymore," she says, "because I'm so lackluster and blah."
The key to surviving a go-nowhere job is to revise your perception of what you do, says psychiatrist Howard Cutler, M.D., who cowrote "The Art of Happiness at Work" with the Dalai Lama. "You may not have a lot of control over your work life now, but you have total control over your attitude."
Reconnect with the people you help in your job, he advises. Boredom can make us forget that we have an impact, which leaves us disconnected from others. "Instead, you have to reach out to people you come in contact with, your customers, your clients. Remind yourself that you're not just adding numbers or shuffling papers," he says. Turn a sales call into a meaningful conversation about family, or read some of the appreciative letters sent in by people who buy your product.
A work rut can also help you get in touch with your inner entrepreneur, says Dale Atkins, a New York City psychologist and author of "Sanity Savers: Tips for Women to Live a Balanced Life." "Figure out a part of your company that could use some attention and put together a proposal for your boss on how to solve the problem."
Using that feeling of being unchallenged as a road to enlightenment or creativity can help get you through the tough times. The former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who spent 30 years teaching composition to college freshmen, says some of his greatest work emerged out of monotony. "I don't think you should be afraid of boredom," he says. "It's like the mother of creativity."
Feeling trapped with nasty coworkers can make a job seem especially unbearable. "Every morning, walking in with my nice warm chai latte, I see her there with her fake smile, and it ruins my day," says Elena, who works in a financial services company in New York, of a jealous colleague. On top of the high-pressure work environment and a wage freeze, having to watch her back has made Elena's job miserable, she says. "But I need the paycheck, and no one else in my field is hiring."
Figuring out the psychological matrix of the undermining coworker can help you determine how to diffuse the situation, and it can prove a fascinating diversion as well, says Marsha Petrie Sue, author of "The Reactor Factor", a primer on not losing your cool on the job. "Once you understand why someone is threatened, you can plot strategies to shore up their lack of self-confidence." Sue's secret weapon is simple: Push yourself to ask well-intentioned, purposeful questions. "It's disarming when you ask someone about themselves," she says. "It makes it harder for them to forget you're human and then do things that hurt you. And you find out things that give you clues to what buttons you're pushing for them."
As victims of torture know, you can make it through anything if you know it's temporary. Atkins suggests envisioning yourself as a visitor from another planet, put here for research purposes. Or turn your job frustrations into a satiric novel, she says. "If you can put some ironic distance between you and the job, you can see it as just a painful episode in a long, productive life."
Perhaps the most important thing is to keep moving forward. Sprucing up your job skills with advanced courses, which may be offered free in your community, and writing a resume that conveys where you want to go are ways to insulate yourself from the slings and arrows at work, Sue says. And putting more energy than ever into a passion you once considered a hobby -- teaching reading to children, Web design, organic gardening -- can provide a sense that there's life after the recession and, potentially, a new career.
"If you have a secret, then while others are just complaining or watching the clock, you're taking action to change your path," Sue says. "It's much easier to float above it or even dig down deeper in the task in order to make it more meaningful."