For those of you who graduated from college before happiness courses were available, you’ve got some reading to do. But luckily, almost all of the books I have seen on this topic are very interesting.
One of these books is Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Gregory Burns, a professor of psychology at Emory. His research includes athletes, S/M practitioners, even sex with his own wife. And he concludes that doing something outside your comfort zone makes you happy — it can trigger a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a mood-lifter.
You already know this intuitively at work. You look for interesting, challenging projects, and you have a fit when work life becomes routine and your learning curve flattens. When someone asks you why you job hop, tell them about this research – about how it is abnormal NOT to job hop.
But what about at home? You watch TV, surf from your sofa, cook dinner but don’t venture past pasta. Instead, use the same standards at home that you have at work: If you are not challenging yourself and learning to do new things at home, Burns’ research suggests that satisfaction with your life will be elusive.
This conclusion is supported by the research that says we don’t get happiness from our jobs alone – it’s something bigger than that. I quote this research a lot when people tell me that they are unhappy and they think they would find happiness if they could just find that dream job: Think harder about what you do outside of your job.
When I graduated from college, I was really, really lost. I had strings of stupid jobs. I was in a new city. And I had no friends. It would have been a great time to watch TV after work, but I didn’t grow up with a TV, so it never occurred to me to buy one. Instead, I read books.
I read a book a night because I was so worried that I was wasting my life and I thought if I read a new book each night, something would happen. And it did. I felt satisfied with how I was spending my time. Sure, I was lonely, and scared that my life would never turn out to anything meaningful. But I learned a lot at night. I really stretched myself and read difficult novelists, big ideas, and non-fiction that was out of my comfort zone.
More recently, I found myself vegetating in front of my always-overflowing email during the nighttime. And I realized that I wasn’t feeling very good about it. So I switched everything up and started running at night. It is hard to motivate yourself to go running at 9pm after putting unruly kids to bed, but I did it, and I felt great. And I’m convinced that it’s partly because the run is challenging and, at some point, the email is mind-numbing.
So stop using work as an excuse to not do anything challenging after work. You grow when you challenge yourself, and you need to grow in ways that can only happen outside of work in order to be able to grow at work as well.
But this does not mean you have to go, go, go. In fact, I would guess that for many of us, sitting silently doing nothing would be very challenging. I actually know a bit about this because sports psychologists love meditation as a way to overcome obstacles.
When I was playing beach volleyball, I couldn’t get my jump serve to be consistent. So I spent twenty minutes each night imagining myself going through each step of my serve: Sitting on the floor, with my eyes closed, not moving. Some people learn to meditate by saying a mantra. I learned to meditate with a visual manta – my jump serve. And even now, when I imagine the serve in my head, I feel my body relax.
Visualizing my jump serve became my favorite part of my day. And one day I hope I can sit still for that long each day again. But for now, that’s an after-work challenge that is probably too much for me.