Do we put too much emphasis on our work for happiness?
I used to want to be a Psychologist. Everything I did was about that goal; it shaped my thinking and my decisions. And more than that, it became my identity. Three years in I realised it wasn’t for me, and when I left I wasn’t just leaving a job - I was leaving a whole way of being.
It’s natural that so much of our self gets bound up in work. Even beyond the hours we spend actually working, we spend still more thinking about it, talking about it and planning the next steps. It’s an integral part of how we introduce ourselves; the first impression we set when someone asks that dreaded question –
‘So, what do you do?’
From our early twenties onwards work is part of how we make sense of our past, present and future. It charts the course of our lives, at least until retirement (and even then…).
If you don’t like your job this probably explains why it feels so painful. Someone once told me that being in a job you hate is like repeatedly sleeping with someone you secretly detest. You feel it in the repulsion of Monday mornings.
No doubt there are parallels between bad jobs and bad relationships, and staying in either one long term can be damaging.
But what about the work that feels like it just misses the mark, where it isn’t bad, but isn’t all that we hoped….
What if we’re putting too much pressure on our work in our quest for happiness and fulfilment?
Writing in The Cut Lisa Miller asks whether women in their 30s should: “stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives”.
She draws a parallel between 1950s housewives expecting to find their satisfaction in being house-proud and husband-proud, and modern women seeking the same satisfaction solely in their careers.
While female-biased, this point rings true for both genders.
These days we’re seeking more from work than a paycheck and a steady routine. We’re seeking meaning, purpose and a sense of impact beyond our daily lives.
For those of us who grew into their working lives against the backdrop of Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week and the propagation of startup culture, it can feel like anything that is just a job is settling for less.
In the process of seeking something more from our careers we bind our own identity ever closer to the work we do.
It’s true that our work shapes the person we become. The School of Life’s Book of Life describes how our careers influence our psychological character according to a series of traits: patience vs. impatience, suspicious vs. trusting, speculative vs. concrete, financially focused vs. financially sheltered. So, for example, a decade as a corporate lawyer or as a sound engineer would result in two entirely different working characters.
Which raises the issue:
‘if I’d done a different job, would I have been a different person?
And the answer must be yes.’
- The Book of Life, The School of Life
But of course we aren’t only what our work makes of us.
Often what is most interesting about us exists on the border of one thing and another – like the friend who works in corporate finance, but has a passion for crafting and furniture restoration, or the IT consultant who is both fiercely competitive at work and endlessly compassionate with friends, the structural engineer who plays the bagpipes, or the solicitor who gets lost in literature. It’s both and.
It’s the contradictions and contrasts that make us who we are.
So, who are you without your job?
What else brings you fulfilment, excitement, or a sense of purpose?
Ask yourself all the seemingly clichéd questions:
What would you do if money were no object?
How would you fill an extra day a week?
What would your childhood self love or hate about your life?
But instead of looking to your work for answers, look to other interests.
Look to the space you fill not working - the trips you take, side-projects, time spent with family and friends. And - especially - to the things you are curious about for no reason other than curiosity itself.
Realising who you are without your work is like stepping out from behind a mask. You may feel vulnerable at first.
But thinking beyond work means exploring the many dimensions of ourselves – and perhaps this is exactly where we should look for a deeper sense of fulfilment.
If you enjoyed this article please share it with a friend in real life or online to help others find it!