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Is Changing Jobs the Answer?

My last post of 2012 recommended some exercises devised by Martin Seligman to enhance happiness (Seligman is the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, based on the scientific, research-driven exploration of contributors to long-term happiness).  Among the tenets of Positive Psychology are the practices of gratitude, selflessness, civic engagement, and envisioning possibility. A client recently sent me the link to a blog post discussing Positive Psychology as it relates to work, and today I will be riffing a bit on some of those findings.

One of the more interesting of them is that one’s level of optimism and the quality of relationships impact levels of happiness more than do jobs. What this means is that asking a job to solve fundamental unhappiness problems may be asking too much of a job. (N.B. - The question of what impact career choice has on happiness is a larger one. Certainly, changing career tracks when disatisfied holds more potential than does a job change).

But does that mean that if you’re unhappy at work you should focus instead on building your inherent sense of optimism, and go try to create deeper relationships? No. Not instead. Rather work on your sense of optimism, creating more meaningful relationships, and ways to enhance job satisfaction, as well as looking on the outside to change jobs.

Let me focus on what may appear to be the most challenging of these approaches: How can you enhance your satisfaction with your current job? First of all, you need to believe that enhancement is possible. I would say that the large majority of my clients expressing unhappiness with their current jobs believe that it’s not possible for them to make things better where they are, and that therefore a job search is the only way out. But in fact they may be able to make some fairly small adjustments that will significantly improve their daily on-the-job experience. A number of them are summarized in my post “Improving Satisfaction with Your Current Job:”


Let me note here that we all (and I most certainly include myself) fall into the trap of looking at various aspects of our lives as separate, relatively unrelated compartments. Job. Relationships. Financial well-being. Spirituality. There is in fact tremendous overlap. If your kids have been acting up and stressing you, or you’ve fought with your spouse, or the bills are piling up, work is going to feel less pleasant. Similarly, improvements in aspects of life outside of work will make the job feel more enjoyable. That’s where things like volunteering, exercise, connecting with others, and prayer or meditation can make a big difference in the way that you feel about work.

But what about the very real fact that many people are in fact in the wrong jobs (or careers)? In a 2006 article The Economist magazine proposed that there are four factors that are most important in determining if you're in the right job; the job must

1. stretch a person without defeating him
2. provide clear goals
3. provide unambiguous feedback
4. provide a sense of control

Three of these four are quite different from the four that Daniel Pink and I believe are crucial (the idea of "control" being included in both):

1.Purpose (what your work accomplishes and the difference it makes)

2.Autonomy (ability to control your schedule or pace of work)

3.Mastery (being engaged in work that can put you "in flow" and in work that provides you the opportunity to improve), and

4.Relationships (the degree to which your job provides a place for you to create and enjoy connection with others).

(see http://dclifecounseling.com/blog/2011/7/23/more-thoughts-on-the-importance-of-income-and-other-factors.html).

I adhere strongly to the latter list - the Economist's seems developed more from the standpoint of the employer than from the employee, and is more specifically job focused than is the other, more career-oriented set of criteria.

But back to the fundamental question of whether changing jobs represents the solution to your unhappiness. It's very difficult to take stock of yourself to determine how much your job is the key to turning things around for you emotionally. That's where the services of a professional are often essential. For most people, the ability to recognize the wide array of opportunities to enhance their satisfaction with life is limited; it's natural for people to believe that, if they're unhappy, the answer is to change outside circumstances - the external "givens." Find a different job. Move to another city*. Get a divorce. What Positive Psychology stresses is that there are more reliable roads to increasing happiness, and that those roads emanate from within. 

* For more on the wisdom of / potential in a geographic move, see:


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