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What Really Makes Us Happy


© 2021 Lane Wallace

Aviation for Women magazine, July/August issue, 2021


Years ago, when I quit my corporate marketing job to try to make a living as a freelance writer, one of the unexpected challenges I encountered was maintaining my self-confidence without a ready-made, “successful” work identity. Until that moment, I hadn’t really understood how much we automatically tie our self-image to our careers. Successful career = successful, acceptable person. Unexpected layoff or struggling new career venture equals … I didn’t have a good answer for that. I knew I was doing what was right for me, but it didn’t fit the world’s image of what success looked like.

Eventually, I decided I had to come up with my own definition of success. So I taped a big sign above my computer that said, “Success is Being Happy.”


I still stand by that definition. But I also recognize that in order for it to be useful as a career guide, you first have to know what’s going to make you happy. And most of us struggle with that. It’s a common reason women reach out to me for career coaching advice, in fact.

In the course of our careers and lives, we all encounter innumerable forks in the road; decision points where we want to make a change or have to make a choice between multiple options. But it’s often hard to know ahead of time what kind of change, or choice, is going to make us happier, in the end.

Fortunately, thanks to the positive psychology movement, there’s now a lot of good research on what actually makes people happy. In truth, there’s far too much information, even as to what “happiness” consists of, to cover here. But the research largely agrees on one point: much of what we imagine will make us happy … doesn’t. 

For all the effort we put into gaining status, titles, power, money, notoriety, or “stuff,” it turns out that none of those things (which psychologists call external, or “extrinsic” rewards) end up making us happy for very long. Part of the reason is humans’ inherent adaptability. While that’s a good thing, from an evolutionary standpoint, it also means that we adjust to new paychecks, promotions, fame, cars, houses, and purchases pretty quickly. In as little as six months, those things become the new “normal,” and the rush of having them wears off.

More importantly, since external rewards, by definition, are controlled by people beyond ourselves, seeking them is an inherently stressful proposition that can leave us feeling more insecure than happy. We need others’ approval to get those things, and the external sources and forces that give them to us can also take them away. Sometimes with breathtaking speed. What’s more, external rewards are always comparative assets. No matter how much we have, someone else will always have more, which means our sense of satisfaction or happiness will always be shadowed by that sense of competitive, comparative achievement.

Not surprisingly, then, the kind of rewards that lead to a stronger and longer-lasting feelings of happiness are those we have more control over, because they stem from satisfactions within ourselves. The more we can shift our focus and motivation to attaining these internal (or “intrinsic”) rewards, the happier we are. We also end up stronger, because if our happiness isn’t dependent on elements that other people control, we’re less vulnerable to what other people think or do. We can define our own standards for our lives. We can be our own person. And we can walk away from bad situations more easily.


That sense of control over our lives and choices is, in fact, one of three critical, internally rewarding elements we do need, in order to be happy. On some level, we need to feel as if we’re choosing to go to work, be in whatever relationships we’re in, or make the kids’ lunches. So the more we can let go of the external markers of success that shackle us to paths or jobs we don’t inherently love, the more freedom and control we gain over our lives. Which in and of itself makes us happier.


But what about those times when we need a job, even if we don’t love it? When there are bills to pay and mouths to feed? Ah. Well, that’s where the second of the three elements comes into play. Because another thing we need, in order to be happy, is a sense of meaning in our lives. As a result, jobs we find meaningful will almost always make us happier than those that simply pay well. But even jobs we do for the money can become meaningful, and therefore more happiness-producing, if we can articulate a meaningful reason we’re doing those jobs. And for most people, taking care of their kids or providing for people they love is a very meaningful endeavor.

In order to find those meaningful jobs, however, or see the meaning in jobs we do for other reasons, we first have to have a very clear handle on what we value or care about most. We can find joy in activities simply because we love doing them. But meaning comes from doing work we believe is important; work that impacts something or someone beyond ourselves. So to make choices that are likely to give us that sense of meaning, we have to know not only what we value, but in what order of priority those values fall. That way, when we’re faced with tough decisions (e.g. between a job we love and taking care of people we love), we know which one to choose. It also helps us be at peace with we’re giving up, because we know it’s a meaningful and voluntary choice.

Gaining that clarity about what matters most to us, and what kinds of activities or work will therefore be meaningful for us, takes a lot of exploration, reflection, and effort. But if anything is the cornerstone to feeling in control and at peace with our choices and lives, it’s having that knowledge. So it’s worth figuring out.

The third element we need in order to be happy is strong, positive, and close relationships. If we have those, we can weather a whole lot of storms and disappointments and still feel as if our lives are okay. Another reason striving too hard for external markers of success doesn’t make us happier, in fact, is that it leaves us less time, and potentially less ability, to form those strong, close relationships.

None of this means we shouldn’t try to succeed in our jobs or careers. But if we know what intrinsically rewarding values matter most to us and make choices based on what will serve those values and responsibilities best, while helping us build those strong personal relationships, it allows us to distance our sense of worth from outcomes we don’t control. So we’ll be happier and less stressed, no matter how those career ambitions turn out. 


I didn’t know any of this when I wrote that sign above my computer. I was just going on gut instinct. Fortunately, it turns out my instincts were pretty good. In switching careers, I gave up a path that offered a lot of external rewards, but little in the way of intrinsic satisfaction, in order to pursue a profession that offered both joy and a sense of meaning, as well as the possibility of a more flexible lifestyle that would work better for my family and personal life. No wonder I ended up a much happier woman for it.


And yes, I call that success.

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