Happiness is an Inside Job

By the time I met Lori, she’d already changed careers three times in her life – not jobs, full careers. And, here she was thinking about doing it again.

It’s not that Lori was struggling financially or that she wasn’t well regarded in her field, quite the contrary. She found her boss infuriating, and her clients tiresome.

Lori was ready to float on her savings for a while until she figured out what profession would make her happy. She believed there was a “right” job for her if only she could “figure it out”; a “correct” trade she was meant to pursue, and a “perfect” boss she was meant to work under.

“I tend to pick a vocation because I’m good at it, not because I’m happy doing the work,” she lamented to me over coffee one sunny Silicon Valley morning. “I want my next career, my next job, to be one that I love, because it makes me happy.”

“How do you know when you have that?” I asked.

Lori looked at me in silence for a while, then around the coffee shop, searching for an answer until finally she admitted she didn’t know.

Rather than encourage Lori to, yet again, abandon her well-earned position to start over, I challenged her to review her current situation from a new perspective. I posited that perhaps there was a way she could feel happy today in her current position, while at the same time elevating her career for more fulfillment.

To figure that out, she first had to be able answer the question, “What makes you happy?” We engaged an exercise to help her define what happiness meant for her:

1. Think about a thing you want to have, or a feel-good activity you want to engage in.

2. Ask yourself, “What will having that do for me?”

3. When you have an answer, ask yourself again, “What will having that do for me?”

4. Keep asking it until you can’t ask the question any more.

5. When you’ve hit this bedrock, you have identified a core want and most likely a source of happiness for you. Write it down.

6. Next, identify the signs and signals that can inform you when you are experiencing the situation that makes you feel happy, and write those down next to the core want.

7. Repeat the exercise with another feel-good thing or activity that you commonly chase in the hopes of feeling happy.

When we completed this steps, we mixed and matched Lori’s responses and a theme began to emerge.

The exercise revealed that Lori actually was doing work that fit into the category of things she loved to do. What she realized was lacking was an ability to make her own decisions and lead others.

By the end of our conversation, Lori was feeling excited and energized again. Because she could identify what happiness was for her, she realized it was possible her current career could take her to where she wanted to go: owning her own practice. To get there, she needed to learn all she could about running a consulting firm in her field. The best way to do that, she realized, was to stay in her current role and take on the mentality of a student – learning as much as she could until she was ready to start her own shop.

In the weeks and months that followed, nothing external with Lori’s job changed. The clients were still difficult, and her boss was still frantic mess. It was Lori’s perspective about the job that had shifted – so markedly so that none of those things bothered her anymore. By shifting her attention from what was wrong to creating a happier future, she even discovered she was experiencing more happiness in the moment.

Lori also wasn’t shy about sharing these new priorities with her colleagues, which turned out to be a good thing. One day her consulting firm got a lead that was too small to handle and asked Lori if she wanted to manage it outside the firm. In an instant, Lori had her first client and was on the path to running her own business!

In today’s age, it’s easy to fall into the trap that things outside ourselves bring us happiness. After all, most advertising and social constructs purport to deliver this if you just follow their lead.

The challenge is, happiness is a nondescript feeling. It is one of those multi-variant emotions that is dependent on your personal perspective and experience. Ask 20 people what happiness is, and you are likely to get 20 different answers. Research bares this out, providing a vast range of aspects that contribute to happiness:

  • An 80-year longitudinal study from Harvard narrowed down happiness to close relationships, over money or fame
  • The Berkeley Wellness Institute describes happiness as being derived from satisfaction and meaning in your life, and your ability to connect with others.
  • A Harvard Business School study found that “spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves.”
  • Psychologist Martin Seligman provides the acronym PERMA to summarize his view that humans seem happiest when they have Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments.

Many people who feel unhappy in their lives have never actually defined what happiness means to them personally – they just know they don’t have it. Understanding the emotion for ourselves as individuals is the first step to achieving it. Without such a specific goal, we find ourselves chasing things that we think will feel good, often to find those things unreachable or unfulfilling.

The good news is that we, and no one else, are in control of how we think and feel. Only we can recognize which actions we take that help us experience happiness. There is no right path, right relationship or right job that will bring us happiness. Instead, feeling happy is a choice that comes from within – a choice of how and where to focus our attention and intentions. It’s an inside job and always will be.

If you are curious about what makes you happy, I invite you to do the exercise above. It’s possible happiness for you is one thing, and more likely a combination of things. Regardless, without defining it, how can you ever hope to achieve it – except by accident – and then would you even recognize it if you did?

Once you know what happiness is for you, identify the areas of your life where you already feel it. What are the thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs you hold or the actions you take when you feel happy? How can you bring those to the areas of your life you want to improve? What’s stopping you from staring right now?

“There is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

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