THE BLOG
01/13/2015 05:05 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

Find Your Happy Place at Work

Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

It seems that it has become the national pastime to complain about your job. Long hours, low pay, lack of appreciation, boredom -- they're the "Four Horsemen" of the daily grind. Ask someone how his job is going, and you can bet one of these dark riders will gallop to the fore. That is why TV and sports, and not job satisfaction, tend to dominate conversation at the water cooler and lunch table.

So, how is your job these days?
"They are always praising us."
I'm sorry, what was that you said? Come again?
"You really feel like you are making a difference alongside some amazing people."

Before you dismiss these statements as the words of a toady, or scan the room for the boss who must clearly be within earshot, be advised that these were anonymous quotes from employees at Acuity Insurance and DPR Construction, two of the firms included in Great Place to Work, which studies and identifies top workplaces. Other surveys, such as Fortune's 100 Best Companies and now Glassdoor.com's seventh-annual 50 Best Places to Work provide similar rankings.

What makes a company great? It's not the free food or massages (though no one's complaining). Time and again, a company rises to the top when its employees believe they're doing something meaningful. Google makes all three lists and most employees (84 percent) say their work at the multinational corporation has special meaning for them. Who wouldn't be fulfilled working on projects like a driverless car or "ingestible technology," a capsule you swallow that will tell your phone when you're sick before symptoms develop?

Having meaning in life is among the five building blocks of happiness, says renowned positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Through extensive research, Seligman found that the pursuit of pleasure is far less important to our well-being than feeling like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Clearly, Seligman is on to something. The other reasons people consistently rate their companies as great places to work bear an uncanny resemblance to his PERMA model for lasting well-being.

(P) Positive emotion - "Everyone is happy to see me and ready to help. I have never had a bad day of work," says an employee at Ultimate Software in Florida. Of Boston Consulting Group in Boston: "It feels like everyone is just a big family. I can be supporting the CEO, and it would be just like chatting with a friend," a worker says. Positive emotions such as pride, hope, gratitude and interest have an effect that goes far beyond bringing a smile to our faces, research shows. Feeling good helps us to perform better.

(E) Engagement - "Upbeat atmosphere where time flies and you feel like you are hanging with friends." That's the very definition of engagement, of "flow," the word positive psychologists use to describe a state of utter immersion in the moment. During flow, Seligman says, you can't feel anything. "You're one with the music. Time stops. You have intense concentration." The worker quoted above enters flow at In-N-Out Burger, which beat out Facebook and Apple on Glassdoor's list.

(R) Relationships - "It is always so much fun to eat in the cafeteria and see the people who are able to have lunch with their kids, because the daycare center is so close by. It makes the cafeteria such a happy place," says an employee at SAS in North Carolina. An employee at Allied Wallet in Los Angeles praises the "special events, fun parties and free Friday lunches where everybody sits and eats together."

(M) Meaning - Back to that free food. It provides contentment, but contentment and the smiley face don't provide meaning, Seligman says. "The smiley face is highly heritable - your parents pass it on to you. Meaning in life is everyone's birthright." In an article based on hundreds of worker diaries called How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work, Harvard's Teresa Amabile joins with researcher Steven Kramer to describe traps managers fall into that drain the meaning from their employees' work lives.

(A) Achievement - "As an employee-owned company, there is a great sense of pride not only in our accomplishments but also how we carry ourselves to reach our goals," says an employee at RW Baird in Milwaukee. Feelings of achievement, accomplishing our goals, are key to well-being.

According to psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, data now abounds that show happy workers produce higher sales, are better leaders and earn higher pay. In a great TED Talk called "The Happy Secret to Better Work," Achor says "doctors are 19 percent faster and more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis" when in a positive frame of mind rather than neutral, negative or stressed.

Last year's Gallup State of the Global Workplace found that just 29 percent of employees in the U.S. are engaged. Furthermore, Gallup quantified the association between employee attitudes and corporate health, reporting the positivity of employees positively affects the bottom line. One investor blog says the surveys' top-ranked firms are where you should put your money, charting the feast and famine annual returns of Glassdoor's top-ranked companies versus those receiving the lowest rankings in the survey.

Naming your company Happy Worker might seem like cheating, but the Canadian toy maker, which doesn't have enough employees to be rated by Glassdoor or Fortune, makes child's play of PERMA. Its employees are "teammates," and they have a "happy mission" to create joy. "Working with Happy Worker is like hugging a rainbow!" pronounces a client.

Happy Worker, by the way, is hiring.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin and the Right Step network of drug rehabilitation centers in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, a scientifically validated approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives upon achieving sobriety.