Guest post – Career Happiness – a lot of fussy nonsense when there’s bills to be paid

Neema Pasha sent me this very interesting post on the subject of career happiness. She’s looking for feedback to inform her future enquiries in this area. So, tell her what you think…


When I was asked about writing something for this blog on my doctoral research (I’m doing it at Henley Business School on Career Happiness) I had just left my job in graduate careers work. It felt a bit hard to know what to write. Becoming a job seeker from being a careers adviser put an entirely different perspective on things. For my research I was looking for a link between ‘Career Happiness and Personality/Traits as measured through our ‘Strengths’. This idea had come from working with graduates, and helping them chart their career direction using the basic process of analysis of themselves, the job market and then facilitating them coming to some kind of career decision; applying some traditional methods and sprinkling with a few other recent models such as from a constructivist paradigm; by encouraging the development also of social capital etc.

But once on the job market myself and the experience of job hunting, suddenly I felt the economic pressures outweighed the need to find ‘happiness’ or even the desire to work within my ‘strengths’ when I was looking at my own career plans. I need to pay a mortgage – happiness seemed surreally fantastical to consider. I almost feel guilty in putting it ‘out there’ as a concept. As I got some freelance work in this immediate panic subsided but I was still left wondering. Is career happiness a bit flimsy or even bourgiouse? Or should constructs like security, structure and safety be primarily factored into career choice and decision making – doesnt being secure account for some part of happiness. Or at least; avoid unhappiness. Motivation being driven by economics – is that wrong? Self fulfillment and happiness seemed almost silly.
There is much talk of happiness in the press and media currently. Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Blair’s ‘Social Inclusion’ and also the happiness projects in France, Nepal and the US all keep this topic on the front page, where it is both derided as filmy and superficial as well as important for national well being. Further development into happiness it is thought will consider tacking depression for example. Research provided by happiness researchers, in particular Martin Seligman suggests that finding happines is very important for societal well being. It can lead to better life expectancy for example. Happy people even catch fewer colds! Happiness it seems can build immunty to infections and stress. So happiness seems a worthwhile pursuit. Seligman says we can get happy by engaging with life in these meaningful ways:

  • Positive emotion –  he says you can get this by creating ‘gratitude journals’ for example – writing down things that went well, and why gives us a postive overview of our life, because inherently we focus on the negative;
  • Engagement –  here he suggests happier people by preferentially use their strengths to perform the tasks;
  • Relationships –   if we make good relationships with co-workers, friends and family we will be happer – married people scorer slightly happier on the happiness surveys;  
  • Meaning – people who enagage in activities tht are ‘pro-social’ that ‘do-good’ will be happier the research suggests;
  • Achievement – the pleasure in achieving our goals accounts for how we can get happy. 

In his website Authentic Happiness, Seligman acknowledges that happiness is an evolving field and much of the research is new and in some ways appears naive. In relation to career happiness his work on Character Strengths and Virtues where he lists a number of key personality strengths that are needed for authentic happiness and argues that no one stregnth is more fundamental than or a precursor to the others. The Strengths angle proposed by Alex Linley at the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology further develops this concept where Linley has developed a ‘Realised Strength’ model which helps people understand not only what their strengths are, but in order to gain career happiness, Linley shows us how to see which are their strengths are are Realised (used well) and Unrealized (under used) as well as look out for signs of Burnout (over used) – thus ensuring we have the balance of strength use, which means better career happiness.

So finding a good strength fit essentially makes us happy.But then much of the work on happiness suggests that we have a happiness ‘set-point’ (see for example the work of Richard Easterlin) that despite what life throws at us we usually return to a habitual level of self happiness and nothing much can deter that (the exception being extreme tragedies and very ill-health) so thie initial panic of being jobless I have might subside and I get back to my old levels of happiness (somehow that seems counter intuitive?). Lyubomirsky suggests that our happiness is largely as a result of our genes and environment:


Lyubomirsky  has even developed an iPhone app to look as part of her ‘How of Happiness’ project. She also undertook some research into career happiness which suggested that we are more likely to be productive when we find career happiness (where career happiness can broadly be defined as success in career as measured not by salary but job satisfaction, enjoyment and fulfilment).

How does this weigh up as a careers adviser working to find a career? Happiness feels only part of the story. Its reminicent of early careers work of ‘matching theory’. Strength matching, realising is good to know – but its not enough. Similar to knowing I have the MBTI profile of ENTJ, I think ok great, but if all the jobs need you to be an ISTP, well then I’ll need to adapt to be a closet ISTP. The stress of being out of work may well be more stressful than adopting a new stregnth or learning a new skill. Being happy in a career to me isn’t just about the job being fulfilling, its also about the commute, the people I’ll work with, the salary, the chances of progressing. These aren’t neccesarily to do with job fit. The experience I feel I’m looking at is more aligned to the work of Arthur where the concept of career happiness is slightly superseded by developing a boundaryless career which has both uncertainty (where is my next job) and also certainty (I know I’m going to be using my skills).
Arther suggests and that individuals will: learn to live without the security derived from any single employer company, to persistently develop their own career competencies, and to contribute to continuing innovation and flexibility both in their own lives and in the economic systems of which they are a part. (Arthur et al., 1999, p.177). Its scarier and oddly more reassuring to put all desires of career happiness aside for now and look for jobs where my primary motive is security (we all go Maslovian at the end of the day). Which makes me think happiness in career is not just about what job makes us happy, ie by utilising our strengths, but happiness is also about security. Which in this economic climate; happiness and security can be at odds with each other.




  1. First thoughts are that Maszlow’s hierarchy of need will always (?) kick in. So with the need to pay for shelter and food, less pressing needs will be demoted, for most people. Second thoughts are that your comments about happiness in work being linked not just to your strengths in the role but your commute, the people you work with, the salary etc are factors important to most (but not all) people, and are things which should factor in to any discussion about career choice. How strongly they will affect choice I think will depend on the individual and their personal circumstances at the time (see Tristram Hooley’s findings on the model for careers ed/guidance in Canada and Australia). Also something I looked at in training but can’t remember the name of now-might be personal construct theory? It refers to different responses we have to things at different stages of our lives – there are different states such as "responsible adult" -if you are writing this blog you probably know more about it than me! That is not to say that the pursuit of happiness in a career is not a valuable aim – both in terms of finding happiness (the psychological concept of what I think is called "flow" interesting here) but also in terms of economic value. My comments are influenced by having seen colleagues driven to take redundancy payments when the climate at work, while doing a job they loved, became unsupportable and from my own experience of working in a difficult climate which is still outweighed by doing a job I love with fantastic colleagues. I may have a quite different view this time next year. So effective careers guidance will never be simple. It must take into acccount personalities, life stages, opportunities, skills-as well as the possibilities of changing all of the above! Sorry if these thoughts are not very coherent-I have written them as they came into my head.

  2. I think that the fact that happiness is constrained by economic circumstance is a good one. But I think it is also important to recognise that it is not determined by the economics in any straightforward way. I think that this issue about how we determine our reaction to the circumstances within which we find ourselves is the issue.

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