THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Happy search: It's not all about your job

One of my favorite topics is the science of happiness, or positive psychology. Most of us look for work that makes us happy. Richard Florida's current research blends positive psychology and economic development. "Your level of optimism and quality of relationships affect your level of happiness more than your job does," he says. What this means is that asking a job to solve our unhappiness problems is asking too much.

The New York Times Magazine explored the positive psycholgoy movement in an article, "Happiness 101." Penn professor and founder of the movement Martin Seligman says, "Postive psychology is not only about maximinzing personal happiness; it's also about civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity."

These things are scientifically proven to lead to a happy life. So when you think about what job to take, realize that things that affect your sense of well-being are not overwhelmingly connected to doing what you love at work.

In the article Daniel Gilbert, who had a bestseller on the subject, disses the movement as cultish: "I just wish it didn't look so much like religion."

It does look like religion, because positive psychology promotes things religion promotes, like showing gratitude. But what this tells us is that the things that make us happy are much more basic than doing interesting work with interesting people.

The Economist jumps on the bandwagon in the article, "Economics Discovers Its Feelings." This report contains some very practical advice. 

Work that makes someone happy stretches him without defeating him, and provides clear goals, unambiguous feedback, and a sense of control.

But don't panic if you can't find a job like this, because when these traits do not exist in a job, people will often figure out how to add them. For example, "Hairdressers often see themselves as the confidants of clients they like, and will fire clients they don't... And some hospital janitors hold patients' hands, brightening their day as well as scrubbing their rooms."

Before you smirk at this rationalizing behavior, realize that Gilbert argues that it actually does create genuine happiness in a job and that even if things are not going well, we can make ourselves think they are. Which is why people should not ask other people if they like their jobs, because almost everyone says they do and it has no bearing on how good the job is.

He also says that this rejiggered feeling of happiness is just as deep and good a feeling as the happiness when something really is going well.

One of his claims is that what we think will make us happy rarely does. (This is the reason we should not sit at home and try to guess what career to pick, but instead should just get off the chair and start trying stuff.)

Gilbert's research shows that while we think being a paraplegic would be very bad and winning the lottery would be very good, three months after the event, neither really affects our happiness. And this goes back to happiness being a result of how we think at our very core– what Seligman calls our level of optimism. 

You don't have to make yourself crazy about finding the perfect job. Needing to find a job you love is overstated. "Some people don't seek fulfillment through their work and are still happy. All options are legitimate and possible," says NYU prof Amy Wrzesniewski.

You need to find a job that meets the four basic standards. But our brains are hard-wired to figure out how to enjoy it once we get there. So lighten up. There's good research to show that a wide range of jobs can accommodate you in a way that you can find happiness. And it's a fact that finding "the perfect" job will not necessarily make you happy.

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3 comments

I think you're definitely on to something. I'm in the fashion business and most people I know who work in fashion do not seem happy, and they always complain when things go wrong. I try to stay optimistic but sometimes others attitudes rub off on me and bring me down. I'm 29 going on thirty and sometimes wonder if I will end up like them. I'm not in a relationship and sometimes wonder if I'm missing out on that part of life.

I agree with Dr. Martin Seligman that Positive Psychology is about more than the person experience of happiness. I have designed and teach a number of Gateways to Happiness that we must walk through metaphorically in order to achieve and sustain a personal experince of happiness. For example, one of my Gateways is the Gateway of Positive Action and Good Deeds. This would include positive civic behavior, making the most of a particular employment opportunity, giving to charity, etc. In and off itself, this will not sustain the inner sense of personal happiness all the time. But it will energize us and help us stay involved in the real world in various ways that will trigger good feelings and positive thoughts.

I sympathize with the gal who is exposed to negative people in her world of fashion. It is hard to sustain feeling of optimism. But if one engages in more than one approach to happiness it helps. So another Gateway I teach is the Gateway of Positive Action. Maybe she can do other activities after work, even laughing Yoga, to bring her up again.

I have a blog on typepad called EnchantedSelf. Hope to hear from some of you. I have a paper on the Seven Gateways and you can write to me at drbarbara@enchantedself.com for it. Thanks, Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, www.enchantedself.com

What are the Four Basic Standards she references in the last paragraph?