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Whistle While You Work: Career as the Road to Happiness

Even with so many people engaged in academic pursuit in my hometown of Seattle, there is still a sizable segment of the population who foregoes postsecondary education and instead jumps headfirst into the world of work. After that giddy, heady feeling of ssucess and affirmation with the first job offer comes the stark reality for many that you actually have to get up when the alarm clock rings, and go in to work when it’s a beautiful, sunny day, even when you don’t want to.

Welcome to adulthood. Nothing gets you there quicker than your first job.

That’s a job; what about a career? Doesn’t the very word career sound so much better, so much happier, than just a job? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary highlights the difference.

A job is defined as a “piece of work; especially in a small, miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate.” A job, then is a piece of work, small and miscellaneous. Doesn’t sound very impressive, does it? Career, on the other hand, is something different. Career is defined as “a field for or pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement especially in public, professional, or business life.” Now, that’s more like it.

Career even has the word pursuit in its definition. Surely you’re getting closer to happiness when you have a career.

I wish I could say that a career is a surefire path to happiness. Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s no guarantee. Imagine the difficulty a person faces who, after four years of college, decides their academic path isn’t leading to happiness. Then imagine the difficulty a person faces who, after 25 years in a career decides their career path isn’t leading to happiness. Careers take time, energy, and resources to build, often in greater proportion even to education. The disappointment, then, when a career doesn’t lead to happiness can be devastating. Often it comes at a time when the person has greater obligations and responsbilities than they did while in school.

Jobs, even careers, often come with a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” component. It’s all about what’s happening right now. Supervisors come and go, expectations change, technology changes, and responsibilities change.

I have known far too many people who become so comfortable in their job that they choose to derive their happiness form their careers, only to find, after 20 years with the same company, they wound up with a crystal clock with their name on it, a hearty handshake of thanks, and a pink slip during the next round of downsizing.

With all the changes that take place in a job or in a career, the one change I didn’t mention above is the fact that often people change. As individuals mature and age, they may one day find they have changed slowly over time so that they no longer “fit” the career they’ve chosen.

I heard of one man who spent over 20 years as a social worker, dealing with difficult, troubled, and in-trouble teenagers moving through the criminal justice system. He took up this career right after college and devoted considerable time and energy to it. There came a point, however, when he decided he just couldn’t do it anymore. Criminal justice was his career, but he gave it up because it wasn’t bringing him happiness. Instead, it had become a source of discouragement and despair. The job was the same, but he wasn’t. The demands of the job, which used to excite and motivate him, were now dragging him down, and he found he had to leave that career.

Careers promise a lot, and when they don’t deliver, the results can be anything but happy.

Do you associate work with happiness? If so, how has it delivered and how has it fallen short?

SOURCE: Chapter 1, “Detours On the Road to Happiness,” in Happy for the Rest of Your Life by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, Inc.

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