One of my favorite topics is the science of happiness, which academia calls positive psychology. I love this topic because most of us think of our careers in terms of happiness. That is, we look for work that makes us happy. Positive psychology turns this hunt into a science. And then tells us to look elsewhere for happiness.
Too Much to Ask
I was talking to Richard Florida about his current research, which blends positive psychology and economic development, and he summarized what I have read in many other places as well: "Your level of optimism and quality of relationships impact your level of happiness more than your job does." What this means is that asking a job to solve our unhappiness problems is asking too much of a job.
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to focus on optimism and relationships so that we don’t feel so much pressure choosing our jobs. To this end, I was excited to see three different introductions to the psychology of happiness recently.
The New York Times magazine ran a long summary of the positive psychology movement, titled Happiness 101. For those of you who don’t know much about this movement, the article is a good primer.
Martin Seligman, founder of the movement and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Positive psychology is not only about maximizing personal happiness, but also about embracing civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity."
This is not small stuff, but it’s the stuff that is scientifically proven to lead to a happy life. So when you think about what job to take, realize that this list of things that affect your sense of well being is not overwhelmingly connected to the idea of doing what you love at work.
One of the most interesting parts of the article is where Daniel Gilbert, the man whose book on this topic was a bestseller, disses the movement as cultish, "I just wish it didn’t look so much like religion," he says.
It does look like religion, because positive psychology promotes things religion promotes, like showing gratitude at the end of each day. But really what this tells us is that the things that make us happy are much more basic than doing interesting work with interesting people.
Sonja Lyubomirsky says being happy comes from the way we think at our very core – and that thinking shapes the work we do. Not the other way around.
Qualities of Happy Work
The Economist jumps on the positive psychology bandwagon in the article, Economics Discovers Its Feelings. This report contains some very practical advice. For example, the traits of work that makes people happy:
1. stretches but does not defeat them
2. provides clear goals
3. provides unambiguous feedback
4. provides 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 often figure out how to add them back in and give the job meaning in their lives. For example, "hairdressers often see themselves as the confidantes of clients they like, and they will fire clients they don’t . . . And there are janitors at a hospital who held patients’ hands, brightening their day as well as scrubbing their rooms."
Before you smirk at this rationalizing behavior, realize that Gilbert says it actually does create genuine happiness in a job. Check out this video of Gilbert speaking at the TED Conference (thanks, Dennis). Gilbert’s a fun speaker, so it’s worth watching the whole twenty minutes.
Gilbert also says that even if things are not going well, humans have a deep ability to make themselves think they’re going well. Which is why Gilbert told me that 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.
However, he says that this rejiggered feeling of happiness is just as deep and good a feeling as the happiness when something really is going very well.
Mirage of Happiness
One of Gilbert’s pet topics is that what we think will make us happy rarely does. (When I spoke with him he told me this is the reason we should not sit at home and try to guess what career to pick, but instead we should just get off the couch 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 your 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. (If you aren't buying this, watch the video.)
So you don’t have to make yourself crazy about finding the perfect job. All that stuff about how you need to find a job that you love is overstated. "Some people don’t seek fulfillment through their work and are still happy in life. All options are legitimate and possible," says Amy Wrzesniewski professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.
You need to find a job that meets those four basic standards for a decent job. But our brain is hard-wired to figure out how to enjoy it once you get there. So maybe you can lighten up about choosing your next job. There’s good research to show that a wide range of jobs can accommodate you in a way where you can find happiness. And there’s good research to show that finding the ‘perfect’ job will not be the thing to make you happy.