I worked until five and set off towards the big conference room in the next building over. Because it was my first month in my new job, I was jumping on every chance to attend a corporate event. I saw each invitation to a happy hour, mentoring circle, and senior women's seminar as a way to get insights into what the leadership cared about and how best to navigate the massive organization. I wanted to be happy and successful, of course, and I very much saw the keys to both coming from the outside in.

Viewing my happiness as a result of a number of external factors- my assignments, my boss, my peers, corporate culture, advancement opportunities, etc.- was largely my approach for the many years that followed until something changed. During a straightforward professional development exercise, I was asked to reflect on when I was the happiest during the previous year. At first, I didn't see any connection to the items on my list. There was a sampling of different projects with various clients. Then it dawned on me. The tasks I enjoyed most were also those that I had the greatest autonomy. Realizing this, I looked into it a bit further.

According to research done by the American Psychological Association, psychologists found that that the degree of control we feel over job-related decisions impacts our health, morale, and ability to manage our workload. Similarly, David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute cites additional studies on the physiological and psychological benefits of increasing your autonomy at work in his article, Managing with the Brian in Mind.

In short, the key to happiness and success at work is increasing your sense of ownership and control.

So, how do you and I use these findings to be happier at work?

Certainly, leaders in organizations can and should offer more direct control over their work to employees. However, the tendency to wait for someone else to improve our situation for us is part of the problem. Instead, I believe there is something more that each of us can do-and is the idea I explore in my book. That is: take ownership of our outcomes for ourselves.

Ownership means seeing the direct relationship between our actions and what happens next. However, ownership is more than just acting responsibly. It's holding yourself accountable to your commitments, your vision, and your future. It is recognizing that you have the ultimate power--the say and sway--in your life to make things happen--or not.

Ownership makes us uncomfortable because when you own your outcomes, you eliminate all excuses. When frazzled, frustrated, or disappointed, we sometimes try to find someone or something else to blame for things not going our way. This is a logical move, after all. Something is stressing you out, so you push it away and make it someone else's fault.

There is no one to blame when you don't get the result you want. When you own your happiness, you're steering away from the idea that you have to be "picked" by someone else to get ahead and steer towards the belief that you alone are on the hook to make the kind of impact you want to have.

There is no space for the notion that you have to do good work so that someone else will recognize your abilities and give you that opportunity, platform, raise, or promotion.

We also avoid ownership because it seems like it is more work on top of an already heavy load. In fact, the truth is that no additional hours at the office are required. Ownership is a different mindset that is ever-present and guides your thinking. When you're an owner in your career, you react to events and see opportunities differently than you did before.

So, how do you take ownership over your career?

The first thing is to decide to do it. This decision triggers a simple mindset shift that starts to empower you to make different choices.

The second thing is to identify an area to get started. There are five core elements to ownership to examine:

  1. Goals: Do you have goals you're working towards?
  2. Crafting your role: Do you know what you enjoy and excel in at work? Where can you adjust or enhance your role to reflect these strengths?
  3. Positioned for success: Do you know when and where you need to be on the lookout for the best opportunities for yourself? Are you advocating for yourself effectively?
  4. Leadership: Do you see the infinite number of leadership opportunities around you? Have you selected the ones that best align with your goals and strengths?
  5. Moving on: Have you made the impact you wanted to when you started? Is now the time right to move on or do you have more to do?

After working through each of these categories, identify the biggest (and potentially most important) opportunity for growth for yourself by answering a series of action-provoking questions such as the ones below.

  • What is your typical goal setting process? What aspects of this process have worked and hasn't worked over the years?
  • How do you check the advice you get against your knowledge of yourself, your strengths, and your aspirations?
  • Who are some of your role models? Who currently has a career that you find interesting or intriguing?
  • How do you like to work? Consider time spent in group activities versus independent thinking, writing or analysis. What ideal role do you play in brainstorming new activities and then executing? Also, think about the location, time of day, and surroundings.
  • What's right and wrong with your current job? Which of these issues are realistically fixable? What near-term actions could you take to create a role that aligns with your strengths and interests?

Based on the actions that come to mind in answering these questions, create a list of activities (alone or with a mentor, coach, or friend.) Add dates and calendar reminders (often helpful) to hold yourself accountable and then get to work.

Of course, you can own your own happiness and still be a part of an organization, still want a great boss, still rely on wise mentors, and still maintain a supportive, connected network. All of these things can and often are nice-to-haves on top of a vibrant, healthy career and they work most effectively when you build on your foundation of ownership.

Published on: Jun 8, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.