Finding the right career: is it the key to happiness?

It is not how much we have but how much we enjoy that makes happiness. Charles Spurgeon

All of us want to be happy even if we don’t admit it openly.  But what do you think would make you happier?

Rita Mae Brown famously said that happiness is “Someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to” and there is no doubt that your work is a large part of that “something to do”.

But recent scientific research into happiness reveals that your external circumstances only contribute 10% to your level of happiness.  People quickly get used to any positive changes in their lives and soon return to their original or baseline levels of happiness.  In fact, studies of identical twins have discovered that 50% of our happiness is determined by our own genetic “set-point”.

You may find this surprising, I certainly did.  Surely our happiness is driven by finding the perfect partner, getting the dream job, earning more money or losing that extra bit of weight around the midriff.  Isn’t it? Isn’t that what we all strive for- and believe? I seem to have spent my whole adult life in a state of  believing that “my life will be perfect once I’ve ……..” Complete the sentence with anything you like.

How often have I stopped to look around me and say “hey, this is pretty good right now” ?  How often have you?  Yet, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California this is one of the most powerful things we can do to increase our happiness levels.

In her book The How of Happiness, she describes the scientific work that has been done to measure what it is that really impacts our happiness levels.  And the good news is that, with 50% pre-determined and only 10% affected by external circumstances there is a massive 40% up for grabs.  40% of your happiness that you can influence by taking intentional happiness-increasing action.

Actions such as nurturing relationships, expressing gratitude, avoiding over-thinking (always one for me, I’m a chronic overthinking perfectionist), savouring life’s joys, engaging in “flow” activities and cultivating optimism.

In the abstract these all sound rather difficult to imagine actually doing.  But small experiments can pay big dividends as I’ve found when trying things out with friends and colleagues.

Here’s an example: find a willing partner and agree to text each other each day with one thing you’ve appreciated that day.  It could be a great cup of coffee, a compliment received, a small achievement, a slice of time you spent on yourself – it’s amazing what we take for granted in an “average” day. At the end of the week compare notes as to how your happiness levels have changed.

In my experience this simple exercise has made a significant impact on the happiness of anyone who’s been prepared to give it a go.  If you can’t find a partner then keep your own record.  Just make sure that you take the time to actually write things down, thinking it won’t be nearly as effective.

So, what has this to do with career changes? If external factors really do only influence 10% of our happiness, does it make sense to place such high expectations on finding the perfect job?  Although a positive career move will bring a temporary increase in happiness, the evidence shows that we will quickly return to our set point.

So perhaps we should give ourselves a break.  Take time to appreciate what we really enjoy in our current role, nurture relationships with our colleagues, find enjoyable activities that we can truly engage with – and stop over worrying about finding a perfect career.