THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Comfort zone: Step out and find happiness

Folks who graduated from college before happiness courses were available have some reading to do. But luckily, almost all the books I've seen on the topic are interesting.

One of these books is Gregory Burns' Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. His research includes athletes, S/M practitioners, even sex with his own wife. And he concludes that doing something outside your comfort zone makes you happy because it can trigger a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a mood-lifter.

You already know this intuitively at work. You look for interesting, challenging projects, and you have a fit when work life becomes routine and your learning curve flattens. When someone asks you why you job hop, tell them about this research– about how it's abnormal not to job hop.

But what about at home? You watch TV and cook dinner but don't venture past pasta. Instead, use the same standards at home as at work: if you're not challenging yourself and learning to do new things at home, Burns' research suggests that satisfaction will be elusive.

This conclusion is supported by research that says we don't get happiness from our jobs alone– it's something bigger. I quote this research a lot when people tell me that they're unhappy and  think they will find happiness if they can find that dream job: think harder about what you do outside your job.

When I graduated from college, I was really lost. I had strings of stupid jobs. I was in a new city. I had no friends. It would have been a great time to watch TV after work, but I didn't grow up with a TV, so it never occurred to me to buy one. Instead, I read books.

I read a book a night because I was so worried that I was wasting my life and I thought if I read a new book each night, something would happen. And it did. I felt satisfied with how I was spending my time.

Sure, I was lonely and scared that my life would never turn out to be anything meaningful. But I learned a lot at night. I really stretched myself and read difficult novelists, big ideas, and non-fiction that was out of my comfort zone.

More recently, I found myself vegetating in front of my email. I realized that I wasn't feeling very good about it. So I switched everything up and started running at night. It's hard to motivate yourself to go running at 9pm after putting unruly kids to bed, but I did it, and I felt great. And I'm convinced that it's partly because the run is challenging and, at some point, email is mind-numbing.

So stop using work as an excuse to not do anything challenging after work. You grow when you challenge yourself, and you need to grow in ways that can happen only outside work in order to be able to grow at work as well.

But this doesn't mean you have to go, go, go. In fact, I would guess that for many of us, sitting silently doing nothing would be very challenging. I actually know a bit about this because sports psychologists love meditation as a way to overcome obstacles.

One day I hope I can sit still for a long time each day. But for now, that's an after-work challenge that's probably too much for me.