This is a guest post from Jennifer Gresham at Everyday Bright. Jennifer was the winner (if you want to call it that) in my guest post not-contest. This article immediately resonated with me and I hope it resonates with you as well. Thanks Jennifer!

My friend Jim works a job he hates, but he doesn't see a way out. Here's a guy who is incredibly smart and talented, but for whatever reason, he's been unable to negotiate a new career. And he's miserable.

He recently asked me, "What if I'm just not a happy person? What if I try to change my job to something better and I'm still unhappy?"

This isn't a dumb question. But if you follow the science of happiness as I do, the answer isn't exactly clear either.

The science of happiness

Back in the 1970's, research showed both lottery winners and recent paraplegics reverted to previous happiness levels within a short period of time. This led scientists to believe there was a happiness set point, essentially a happiness cap determined by our genes. Accordingly, your decisions and circumstances in life didn't have long-lasting impacts on your happiness level.

Then positive psychology came along and said, yes, there is a happiness set point, but it only accounts for about 50% of our happiness. So of the portion that's within our control, what makes us happy? Sadly for Jim, the positive psychologists say relationships account for 40% of what we control, and only 10% arises from our circumstances, including our jobs.

In a review of the positive psychology literature Penelope Trunk said

The thing that increases our happiness is our relationships. A job cannot make those better. However a job can make you so unhappy that you can't relish the relationships in your life.
I agree. I had what anyone would call a great job. I was the Assistant Chief Scientist for a lab that examined ways to improve human performance. I guided the work of hundreds of super smart scientists and engineers alongside my boss, who is one of the best leaders and mentors I've ever met.

And yet ... I got euphoric every time I took a day off. Although I enjoyed the higher purpose that came with leading in a large, government laboratory, the bureaucracy was slowly driving me insane. Before long, I was getting snippy with the very family I loved.

But that's not the whole story.

Does our work really matter?

Science says we are pretty lousy at predicting what makes us happy. Part of the problem is that most of us don't spend any time at all figuring out what brings us fulfillment. We don't take a class on it in college and our parents likely didn't provide very good role models.

What we do know is that Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don't have a definition for success, society is more than happy to supply one for you. By and large, that definition calls out money, power, and prestige as the ultimate indicators of a good life.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with making money. I’m all for it. But I think we've got it all backwards. We chase after jobs that pay a lot and hope we like them. I think we should chase after jobs we love and hope they pay a lot.

Because at some point you realize a person who "lives" for the weekend has reduced their enjoyable life span by over 70%.

This is where I have a problem with the "relationship only" model of happiness. If our work didn't matter, you'd think that ultra rich people would be the happiest people on the planet, since they'd have a lot of time to focus on nurturing great relationships. There should be a big correlation between having so much money you don't need to work and off-the-charts happiness. But there isn't.

In fact, the research shows the connection between money and happiness evolves from a sense of status. It's not the absolute value of your salary that matters, but how much higher it is than those around you (sounds like some pretty healthy relationships).

I've been told on more than one occasion that most people don't "live to work" but "work to live" and I should stop spouting this "follow your passion" BS.

But I can tell you that once I figured out what I really wanted to do with my career (and more importantly, found the courage to go do it), my happiness soared. Something really profound has happened: I love my work so much that Monday is now my favorite day of the week.

When I admitted this fact to my husband, he was worried (needlessly, I might add). In my experience, there are two different well springs of happiness: relationships and a sense of personal achievement. The question is how to design a life that maximizes both.

Overcoming average

Psychological research is tricky. It relies on surveys where not everyone agrees on the definitions. It has a hard time accounting for variation, on both an individual and day-to-day level. And like most science, it searches for a universal truth that may not exist.

We know that when it comes to emotions and stock markets, the "average" response may be of little value. What makes someone else happy may not make you happy, yet we continue to act like there's only one definition of success (and only one path to happiness).

I told Jim I could be sure of one thing: while he might not naturally be the happiest guy, a job he enjoyed would make him happier than one that didn't.

The secret ingredient to getting that sense of personal achievement is to find work that encourages flow, which is derived from four qualities:

  1. stretches a person without defeating him
  2. provides clear goals
  3. unambiguous feedback
  4. a sense of control
The idea of flow came from researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, but it's quite similar to the ideas presented by Daniel Pink in his book Drive, who calls for more autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In either case, it is possible to transform work from something of a burden or a chore into something rather exhilarating.

This is what people refer to when they tell you to "follow your passion." The problem is that most have no idea how to discover their passion and so assume is it mythical at best or a scam at worst.

Don't take my word for it. Do your own experiments--pull a Gretchen Rubin and tweak your life until the foundations of your happiness become clear. Research may say we're lousy at predicting our own happiness, but I'll say there's also no one better.

In other words, if you want an extraordinary life, why design yours according to the responses of average people?

Jennifer Gresham is a Ph.D. biochemist who left her job to become a writer. She blogs about finding the clarity and courage to design a fulfilling career at Everyday Bright.

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