by Denise Riebman

“I know this sounds childish, but I want a job that is fun.” My client was embarrassed to utter this “dirty” word during our career coaching session. Hearing the discomfort in his voice, I could feel my playful heart break. When did it become wrong to want to have fun at your job?

This is not about ping-pong tournaments, free espresso, and cubicle dance-offs. This is about meaningful work that lights us up rather than weighing us down. By building on our strengths, finding professional flow, and incorporating play into our jobs, not only do we infuse that dirty fun into our work, but research shows that our productivity skyrockets!

Research by Goleman and The Hay Group found that the most effective leaders are funny and get their employees laughing three times more often than their counterparts. “In Choosing a Job, Focus on the Fun,” a recent New York Times article, outlines the short- and long-term implications of increasing our awareness of what brings us enjoyment at work. At multibillionaire Richard Branson points out, “Some 80 percent of your life is spent working. You want to have fun at home; why shouldn’t you have fun at work?”

Step 1: Find YOUR fun.
“Researching for hours and hours,” is the response my friend, a professor, gave when I asked what a fun job meant to her. While she didn’t appreciate my look of horror, her face filled with dread when I shared that, for me, fun is being the keynote speaker at a conference. Everyone’s definition of fun is different! Here are easy ways to figure out what lights you up at work:

  • Think about the times when you’ve come home at the end of a work day and felt fully alive. What had you done? Who were you working with? What did you laugh about?
  • Brainstorm 10 times when you’ve felt professional flow (defined as the “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”). By noting what you were doing, the strengths/competencies you were using, and the people/situation supporting the flow, you will inevitably notice themes about what sparks your fun.
  • Step 2: Find out how MUCH fun you need.
    Known for more than creating a magical world where a frog and pig fall in love, Jim Henson was notorious for his seamless integration of fun into work. From the glint in his eye, humorous direction, and mischievous meetings, it was clear that Henson clearly craved fun work. While I’m a Muppet superfan and love playfulness, I don’t need that level of supercharged fun at my job. How much fun do you need in your daily work life?

  • For one day, notice how your energy ebbs and flows during the day. Simply observe what brings in and what takes away your work oomph.
  • For one week, keep a fun journal to track what is lighting you up at work. Jot down what you were doing and who you were doing it with. Was it those five minutes when you were laughing with colleagues? Or the time you did creative brainstorming during a staff meeting? Or having lunch with people you don’t work with?
  • For one month, at the end of every week, figure out the average percentage of time you spent on different aspects of your job. Second, put down percentages to indicate how much you love each part of your job. See where the numbers are close and where they are far, far away.
  • Step 3: Start having fun NOW.
    The play we get as kids is connected to the development of our frontal cortex, which impacts cognition—our ability to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, organize our thoughts, and plan for our future. But since we know that our brains continue to develop as adults, why do we think it’s bad to still want to play? This is not a childish desire, it’s an adult need—so let’s start having fun at work right now.

  • Today: Do one new thing that brings you fun at work. Start a staff meeting with a fun icebreaker; have lunch on a different floor in your office and meet new people; add colorful visuals and music to a presentation.
  • Tomorrow: Use the Broaden and Build Theory to first notice (use the Fun Journal and Flow Activity mentioned above) and then gradually expand upon those moments of what brings you fun in your job.
  • Future: If your current position isn’t filling you with the fun you need, it’s time for a playful career deep-dive to explore the jobs and organizations that will give you the space and time to have a job that is fun for you.
  • The journey is not a professional ladder but rather a career jungle gym, so let’s have dirty fun sliding and swinging and laughing at work!

    Denise Riebman is a career development specialist who applies a strength-based, positive psychology framework toward inspiring individuals to find career happiness. She is Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School, and founder of Denise holds a Certificate in Positive Psychology and additional certification from Global Career Development Facilitation, Presence-Based Coaching, and The Coaches Institute.