Can a Job Make You Happy?

In a nutshell, the answer is No, but it can make you feel miserable. In fact, I wrote about the deadly “one day I’ll be happy” pattern we tend to fall into in my article “When Will You Be Happy?”. As it relates to careers, this deadly pattern translates into believing you’ll be happy only when you get that new, perfect job. Unfortunately jobs come and go and Happiness and Careersuddenly you find yourself in some new job and realize that it is a huge deejay-vu only with different furniture and the names and faces changed. Your feelings of happiness or unhappiness on the whole remain.

Given my personal interest in this topic as someone transitioning from life as an employee to life as a business owner, my eyes perked up when I read the recent “Pamela Slim and Penelope Trunk smackdown” on one of my favorite blogs Escape from Cubicle Nation. Since I am also an avid reader of Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog and distinctly remember her post “The connection between a good job and happiness is overrated” I got sucked in to this latest post like a kid at an ice cream shop.

When I first read Penelope’s post, part of me wanted to jump up and say “You Got That Right!” and part of me (the miserable day job part of me) wanted to say “Easy for You to Say Lady!”. That’s why I am jumping at the chance to add my own $.02 to this conversation.

After reading Pam’s smackdown post this morning, I had an epiphany on my walk to yoga class. One of those moments when everything gets clear, makes sense, and the angels sing. I love it when that happens! The aha moment was my ability to articulate an explanation as to why the connection between job and happiness is overblown.

As I see it, happiness is a state of being; a being-ness about who you are at the core: how you feel about yourself and your life; how you show up in the world. It is right up there with a connection to a higher power and spiritual life. You can’t put your finger on it, but you feel it and it can make all the difference when it comes to living a meaningful and fulfilling life. On the other hand, a job is all about doing; a doing-ness where it is all about what you do, who you do it with, the environment you do it in, etc. It is about the roles and responsibilities you assume when you take on a particular job. Since it isn’t connected directly to who you are (who are be-ing) it can neither make you happy nor unhappy.

You might be saying — “that’s a lot of great wording Paula but I have a job from hell and it is KILLING ME!!!!”. I understand where you’re coming from. My 16 + years in Corporate America have ranged from mind-numbing and neutral to all out “just shoot me please” misery complete with bosses, co-workers, and environments from hell. Yet, at the end of the day, my jobs have never defined who I am or who I am being. Albeit the bad environments bring out the worst in me and my dark shadows have a field day, but if I step back and look inside myself I still know that who I am and whether or not I am happy comes from the inside out. (Of course, sometimes that means making an entirely new career choice, but that is a different post.)

In terms of being happy with a job, I believe in many ways it has more to do with who you get to be on the job than the tasks you’re actually doing. While I agree with Pam that what you get to do and the meaning you give to it are unique to a person, if you find yourself in a middle ground job where you are doing tasks that you’re skilled at but not passionate about, then you really can make a so-so job good by focusing on the positive and keeping your perspective about work (as in, it is not the be-all end-all of anything).

As luck would have it, I ran across another related article today called “The Dangerous Myth of the Dream Job”. I disagree with the author Timothy Ferriss’ flat out statement

“Converting passions into ‘work’ is the fastest way to kill those passions. Surfing two hours on a Saturday to decompress from a hard week might be heaven, but waking up at 6 am every morning to do it 40 hours per week with difficult clients is a very different animal. Mixing business and pleasure can be a psychologically toxic cocktail.”

While I agree that turning passions into your career is not always a great idea for the reasons he sites above, finding something you are passionate about to call your work is a good idea. The key is to know the difference. You need to look hard and ask the questions:

Am I passionate about this because it allows me to unwind, relax, and enjoy life?


Is this passion something I want to make my life’s work?

If the answer is yes to the first question, by all means keep that passion a hobby (or even a little side money-making hobby). If the answer is yes to the second question, it is worth pursuing as a career option. At the very least, beta-test the idea as a second job to experience firsthand what it’d be like doing it every day for work.

What I did love in Tim’s article however was this:

The ideal job? The one that takes the least time

For most of the planet, I would assert that the ideal dream job is the one that takes the least time. Be productive instead of busy, and recognize that life is full of special relationships and activities that need to be protected from one another. Focus on artful separation instead of integration, and you might just as I did feel as though an enormous burden has been lifted.

Expect a lot out of life, but don’t expect too much from your job. It’s just one tool. Make it a specific one.

I say Amen to that! To me the ideal job is the one that makes the most money in the least amount of time as long as it is something I enjoy doing and it aligns with my values and personal integrity. Now THAT is something to be happy about.

What do you think? Do you equate a job or career with happiness? What is your take on this whole conversation? Do you think it differs at all or has a special spin if you’re LGBT and struggling with the coming out on the job question? Throw in your $.02 in the comments.

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  1. What a great post, Paula. You really get it. I love how you talked about happiness as being and work as doing. I had never thought of that, but it's true. Work and happiness are like apples and oranges, yet we talk about them like they are apples to apples all the time.

    Also, the Tim Ferriss stuff is intersting in this context. I think it's a little extreme. Not that extreme isn't intersting and thought-provoking. It is. But Tim's ideas beg the quesiton: What is it that we should be doing with our time, and why it is so separate form work that we should be working only four hours.

    Not that I have answers. But thank you for helping me to figure out some questions to ask.


    • Penelope, your blog is the only career advice blog I recommend to people. Everyone is so politically correct, and tells you things that are so obvious, and boring. Love love your quote about how your sex life contributes more to your happiness than your career. It's so politically incorrect.. and so so true.

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