Q & A Today: Happiness Is An Inside Job

Updated: Jan 19

By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC

Posted on February 7, 2021


Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.


Q: I’ve got a good job. I worked hard to get this position and aspire to be the company’s youngest vice president within the next five years. My goals are clear. To attain them I work prolonged hours, and at the end of the day return home to my lovely family. I’m at the office to work, not socialise with my colleagues. I eat lunch at my desk. I can’t say I particularly like this present work pace, but knowing I will eventually have the security of a title, a very significant salary and annual bonus makes me happy.


So why does my wife keep telling me that I should put more energy into getting to know my office mates? And it doesn’t stop there. She has suggested I learn to play golf, not bring office paperwork on family vacations, and invite neighbours over for dinner. She tells me I’m a bit of a workaholic because of my long gruelling hours at the office, and thinks I should have a passion for something other than simply wanting to achieve my professional goals. – Hugh


A: Dear Hugh,

Why are there so many unhappy lottery winners? Because happiness isn’t about concrete things we receive. How many of us think we’ll be happy when we get into that much desired college? Or corner office? Or have a first, then second baby? What I’m saying is that I believe your wife is gently nudging you to see that you may have a misconception of financial security making you happy.


Pursuing high distinction in your career through personal sacrifice and years of commitment to hard work can be honourable. Yet while securing an impressive salary and title of vice president will be a wonderful achievement, you may find that this workplace accomplishment leaves you short of ‘grabbing the brass ring’ of life.


Work provides only one slice of the ‘happiness pie’. Perhaps your wife is concerned that you are focusing exclusively on professional and financial success with happiness to make you happy, and wants you to see the other pieces of the pie you are missing that could contribute to a lifetime of happiness.


You mentioned your expectation that being successful in achieving your professional goals will influence your happiness. Although that may be true, my concern is that committing all your happiness expectations to your position and salary may result in your becoming overly dependent on the job to define who you are. I’m not suggesting you abandon your career goal, as happiness needn’t be an either/or situation.


In fact, you will be interested to know that your happiness will have a positive impact on your success. Shawn Achor, positive psychology author of The Happiness Advantage, found that contrary to what many of us are taught to believe, it is happiness that fuels success rather than vice versa. If you’re happy, you’ll likely be more successful at work.


I’m not minimising the benefit of a good title and income. Money provides financial security, options for better choices and general control over our lives. But focusing on money is not enough. You might be surprised in the results of a study by psychologist Dan Gilbert, comparing happiness between two groups of people; lottery winners and paraplegics.

Can you guess who was found to be happier after one year of winning the lottery or losing use of their legs? The paraplegics were only slightly less happy. Winning all that money in itself did not bring the overwhelming joy that the lottery winners expected.

That’s because happiness is an ‘inside job’. It comes from within, not from external events. Happiness is about being in the moment rather than focusing on the future, and having gratitude for who we are and what we have, rather than being dependent on something outside of us to make that happen.


Your wife is on target when she suggests socialising with neighbours. Relationships are vital in creating happiness. They provide shared experiences from which we recall positive memories and feelings of being valued. It is our ties to those who are important in our lives that even help protect us from mental and physical challenges.


Anything that brings you joy can contribute to your happiness. A sense of happiness can be found in doing for others, as it can give you a feeling of meaning. Think about what is missing in your life, what interests you, and how to make connections with others. Go outside your comfort zone and try new things. Think about your long-term goals, which are bigger than the paycheck and position.


Speaking of work… I’ve got good news for you, Hugh. Happiness in relationships can be found everywhere, even in your workplace. Consider implementing your wife’s suggestion to connect with your colleagues in the office. Go out to lunch with them rather than eating exclusively at your desk. Look for opportunities to collaborate with colleagues over work related matters and express gratitude for what they provide.


It’s worth the effort, Hugh. We’ve long known that chronic stress and negative emotions can harm the body. What could be worse than having sacrificed years, even decades of your life for a title and financial security only to be burdened by medical ailments, leaving you unable to enjoy the freedom and joys you had expected?


Scientific evidence suggests that the beneficial chemical reactions and electrical processes occurring in our brains when we are happy provide the opposite effect of chronic stress: protection for our body. It appears that positive mental health helps us achieve better sleep and lower blood pressure. It may even help boost our immune system, lower our risk for cardiovascular disease, and contribute towards an increase in our life expectancy.

Your wife has wisely nudged you in a direction that may help you be able to not just acquire, but enjoy the financial rewards from your career. The next step is up to you.

Wishing you well,

Eileen

Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.


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