How To Be Extraordinarily Happy – In Work and Life


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.


  1. This is fabulous. I loved how in-depth yet personal and relatable it was. I can relate. When I left my job, my happiness peaked considerably and Monday is also my favorite day of the week.

    • Thanks, Susan. I love to hear that others have had the same experience in pursuing meaningful work. Some day, there will be enough of us saying this that pursuing a fulfilling job will seem normal and natural. I hope it happens before my 4 year old gets to college. :)

  2. I just finished “Now, Discover Your Strengths” and “Strengths Finder 2.0”. Put those together with exactly your points and we’re really on to something, I think.

    • Yeah, those books are interesting, in particular because they claim most people don’t need a new career, they just need to engineer their current jobs to focus on their strengths. I’m not sure I totally buy it, but if you’re worried about recessions, it’s certainly a place to start. I do like the ideas of understanding and fully capitalizing on your strengths. I think that’s a big part of the happiness equation.

  3. Jen,
    I love the line…”chase after a job we love and hope they pay a lot.”

    I’ve said many times, I’ve had lots of money and I’ve been dirt poor… money had nothing to do with my happiness. What good are riches if your soul aches to be happy?

    You make an excellent point that too many people believe they should fit a mold and be happy with what makes others happy. It is very personal, happiness. Trust your gut.
    Excellent post!

    • That was my favorite line too (if the author is allowed to have one?).

      It is a personal business, and that’s the main message. Find your own happiness, your own success, and you really can’t go wrong. Quit letting society make decisions on your behalf!

      Thanks, Barbara!

  4. Great article! very easy to read and understand.
    The pursuit of happiness, I believe has to be looked at from every angle.

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

    I love this thought, Jen. It’s so true. I remember years ago telling my mother, “Mom, I’m just not going to be one of those people who has a ‘normal’ life.” I’ve learned not to fill her in on the nitty-gritty because she’s a mom and worries too much as it is. At the same time, it’s nice to be able to share the highlights (after you’ve jumped out of the plane and successfully landed, for example).

    Excellent work!

    • Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? The ones who love you most are also the most likely to hold you back from pursuing your own version of happiness. It’s understandable (they really do have your best interests at heart), but it takes a strong person to avoid social pressures to conform when it comes from those closest to us. Sounds like you found the perfect work-around!

  6. This is something I wish my husband could internalize. But like many men, he is paralyzed by fear and sense of responsibility: he has a family to support and it seems to be a too great a risk to plunge into discovering and pursuing passion and happiness…

    At least I have brought him to a point where he is beginning to dream of possibilities (visioning a new future, a pleasant future, a joyful future)… just need to find the way to tickle him further, towards positive action!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here (I see clearly how Karol could relate and chose this for his opening “non-contest” contest :) ).

    • Andrea,

      Having your support to explore those kinds of ideas will be invaluable to him. Better yet, demonstrate those ideas! My transformation from scientist to writer seems to have “infected” my family and friends as well. And I suspect they, in turn, will pass the “infection” on. That’s my hope anyway.

      Best of luck to you and your husband. Glad the post didn’t disappoint. Karol leaves big shoes behind (literally I suspect). :)

  7. Jen,
    This is awesome! You have expressed so well some of what I have been working through this past year since leaving my job after having a mental meltdown! I loved parts of my job, but could not deal with the corporate pressure. I am now working on reinventing my life to be more about what I am good at and what I love, which is helping people be their best and help them do more of what they love! I currently blog and write about my last year and recovering emotionally, mentally and physically, and making plans for my next chapter in my life.
    I have to say, I am a lot like you in that I love Mondays now too!
    Now I just have to get my husband to work through this same process. He is miserable at his job, but would never, ever leave, especially not in this recession! Of course, I am glad he pays the bills, but I want him to be happy as well!
    Great post! Will be sharing!
    Ahh, the American Dream and a cure

    • To be honest, I don’t think the Recession changes much. I hear it a lot, but the fact is, the people are still hiring. Talent is still in short supply, mainly I believe, because so many are working in areas that don’t excite them. I hope your husband will at least entertain the idea. I mean, what’s the harm in a daydream? How would his life, and yours, change if he took a job he enjoyed?

      Believe me, I know it’s hard. We’re dealing with the issue in our house as well. But as Brian Clark says, “This isn’t a dress rehearsal.” We don’t get a second chance.

      Thanks for your comment, Bernice! I hope this reply was helpful!

  8. Hi Jen,

    Congrats on non-winning! ;) Excellent article! This reminds me of a condensed and applicable version of “The Happiness Hypothesis.” Have you read it? Great book! What you have done is to show how this information and redearch can be applied to work and everyday life.

    I’ve definitely asked myself the same question as your friend, Jim. Like you, I agree that there is so much more to happiness than just our work, but our work can also become a tremendous source of meaning and happiness in our lives. I’m hoping that perfect job is still out there waiting for me, or better yet, that it is waiting for me to create it!

    Btw, I loved this line, “What we do know is that Nature abhors a vacuum.” ;)

    • Wow, a condensed and applicable version of The Happiness Hypothesis? High praise indeed!

      Your ideal career IS out there, Adrienne. Remember that the path from here to there isn’t a straight line. I think one of our worst enemies to happiness is unrealistic expectations.

    • Very cool. I’m always delighted to find others reading the happiness literature critically. It’s a tough subject and I find even many of the scientists in the field don’t seem to acknowledge the difficulties they have in data collection, and obviously, therefore, interpretation.

  9. Thank you Susan! I learned a lot here. The words “there are two different well springs of happiness: relationships and a sense of personal achievement” really touched a chord with me.

    I recently left job that I loved and hated – by having a nervous breakdown. Obviously it wasn’t the right job for me! I am in the process of assessing where I’m going from here. The important question is – do I love doing that kind of job, but just not at that company, or am I being nudged in a totally different direction. I’m still recovering from my illness, but I can start planning my future, right?

    • Those are good questions, Hanlie. You’re off to a great start and yes, this is a perfect time to start planning the future. In my experience, most of the people who have reinvented themselves, in life or in their careers, have done so after some life changing event. So while I know your nervous breakdown must have been traumatic, take comfort in the idea that many great and wonderful people have had similar experiences.

      There are a number of exercises you could start working on to figure out whether you need a new job or a new career. Does your profession utilize your major strengths? Does your profession provide you with work in line with your values? Does it stimulate your intrinsic reward system, or is it only extrinsic? Do you enjoy thinking about how to do your work better, even when you’re not at work?

      I’m in the process of putting together a Career Reboot Camp. It won’t be ready until the summer, but if you’re interested in trying some of the ideas out in a pilot project before then, shoot me an email and we can talk.

      Best wishes to you. I know you’ve been through a lot, but there are better times ahead. I promise!

  10. This is indeed a thought-provoking piece about what truly makes you happy. And we have all been to that place where we thought we would accomplish XYZ and suddenly, everything would be like fireworks. But then you got there and guess what? You felt a small, fleeting sense of happiness and then it was gone. Like really disappointing sex with someone smoking hot. You question yourself. “Have I gone nuts?” No!

    This article makes it all clear by basically saying that you think you know what makes you happy and you don’t. Why? Because everyone else tells you what SHOULD make you happy. Any other ideas of happiness are just foolish.

    Thanks for the insight. It’s tough to ignore the well-meaning but ill-gotten advice of others. But it’s time to think in new directions. Here’s to happiness!

    • Like really disappointing sex with someone smoking hot. You question yourself. “Have I gone nuts?”


      Glad I could bring this into focus. I think we all know it at a fundamental level, but it needs to be conscious to make a change. It’s certainly made a huge difference for me.

      Thanks for the kind words! Made me, uhhh, happy! :)

  11. Ah, this is an ‘extraordinarily’ fantastic article. : )

    I particularly like the four elements of flow — my brain is now abuzz considering how helpful it would be if those qualities existed externally, too… if bosses and partners and children and teachers all laid everything out in the open. I think ambiguity is a pretty huge contributor to those soul-crushing jobs and the relationships that just don’t quite work.

    Also from one of your comments above – “Talent is still in short supply, mainly I believe, because so many are working in areas that don’t excite them.” YES. Yesyesyes. I’ve been wondering for YEARS why we don’t help students (and regular people) find the topics that get them worked up and encourage them to pursue THOSE rather than the standard fare. You boiled my years of confusion down to a beautifully concise hypothesis though — love it.

    Thanks for writing! And the new row of tabs open in my browser I’m now off to explore. : )

  12. Thanks, Allison. I completely agree with you about ambiguity and the lack of communication dragging down the morale. I worked in Corporate Communications for a year, and I had everyone in the trenches saying, “What you’re doing is so important! We never hear anything!” and all the bosses saying, “You’re wasting my time.” Needless to say, despite my passion for communication, it wasn’t the job for me.

    Glad this post hit a chord with you. Now we just have to change the world, eh? :)

  13. “In other words, if you want an extraordinary life, why design yours according to the responses of average people?”… Exactly

    Made the plunge today, quit school to pursue my business full time. No back up plan now.

    Great post,

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