Happiness and the “real world”

This is a piece I wrote for my college newspaper and something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I attempt to justify my decision to spend the next two years of my life as a PeaceCorps Volunteer in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Photo Credit : von Hafften

As a high school senior, I was bewildered by the vast number of colleges to choose from. I remember flipping rapidly through a huge Princeton Review book, pausing only when one category, happiness, caught my eye. I wish I could say my decision of where to spend four years of my life involved a complex, logical process, but it didn’t. I came to Whitman largely because at the time it was the ‘happiest school in the country.’

Now I’m about to graduate and I find myself in a familiar state of bafflement regarding my next move. Like many college seniors these days, I am without a definite answer when everyone from the clerks at Safeway to my grandparents ask some version of the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I’ve started answering, “I want to be happy.” This may sound flippant, but allow me to explain.

Studies have shown that the more engaged you are at work, the more satisfaction you have in life, lending more credence to the idea that you should do what makes you happy. Sadly, a Gallup study found that 73 percent of Americans are disengaged with their workplace, meaning that they’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—but not energy or passion—into their work. When asked if they had gotten the things in life that were important to them, more than half of engaged workers said they had while only nine percent of actively disengaged workers said they had. More than half of these disengaged workers said that negative feelings at work have caused them to behave poorly with family or friends.

This widespread dissatisfaction might be behind the high rate of turnover in the American workplace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between the ages of 18 and 42, Americans change workplaces an average of 10 times and spend less than five years at each job. The transiency of younger workers is even higher; among jobs started by workers age 18 to 22, 72 percent end in less than a year.

I would be remiss to overlook the fact that many people, particularly in this economy,  have to take what they can get to pay the bills. But many Americans, and especially graduates of prestigious colleges like Whitman, have a choice. We can choose a job that merely pays the bills or find one that enriches our lives.

So how do we find a job that makes us happy? The growing interdisciplinary field of hedonics (the study of happiness) draws on neuroscience, applied economics, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology to answer this widespread conundrum of what makes us happy. Different research has shown different things; everything from engaging in local politics to having a steady income and living in a healthy environment makes us happier. What all of the happiness-index models seem to agree on is that the more control we have over our lives and our environments, the happier we are.

For me, having control means finding a job I truly enjoy without pressure from family or passersby. I don’t want to be someone who suddenly wakes up in medical or law school and realizes that they’re only there because someone told them they should be, not because they truly want to be a doctor or lawyer.

Making happiness my primary criteria for my college search brought me the best four years of my life. I’m hoping that searching for happiness in my career will bring me the next best 50.