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.

23 replies
  1. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    There is also a need to just plain veg out at times and take a break from the treadmill of self-improvement. Not every action need be purposeful. Sometimes, you need those breaks–e.g. watching an episode of “Beauty and the Geek,” for example, to allow you to shift gears and think of something new and better to do, as you describe here. It’s the same at work…writing this comment is a break that let’s me shift gears to something new…that I’d better start now before someone sees me writing this! ;)

  2. Eve
    Eve says:

    Good advice, but a caution: When I think of what I am doing after work and why, perhaps it is not challenging, I realize that what you are getting at is TIME. In regards to how you spend your time after your job which pays your bills (for the rest of you…I am not at that point yet. I guess I am too young to deserve a livable salary?) Anyway, if you have time you can spend it doing meaningful challening things. Running after 9PM was the best time for you and so it worked. But, you still had to give up something else to do it. If you are spending time on one thing, you are giving up another (maybe you didn’t clean house that evening or get to clean the dishes after dinner or read to your children before bed). My point is, the main beef I’d have with this post is that you need TIME to do things and time is money so we say…Thus, if you arent’ making enough money to even have an entertainment budget or any time for yourself…you’ve got bigger problems than finding time to do something challenging or meaningful after work.

    On the other hand, this makes a lot of sense, to quote:

    “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 becuase sports psychologists love meditation as a way to overcome obstacles.”

    Sitting silently is a huge challenge for me. I leanred how to meditate in a temple using Zazen and it is darn difficult to do it, yet I would argue quite important.

  3. Scott Williamson
    Scott Williamson says:

    So very true. Far too many adults, esp as we get older and get more responsibilities fall into the evening routine quite easily (cook dinner, take care of the kids, and plop down in front of the TV). My wife and I do this quite a bit and to your point, when we shake things up we tend to feel better about ourselves and our life. Routine is fine, but it’s good to break out of it every once in a while.

    I use a version of your relaxation technique when I cant’ sleep or just need to wind down a bit. Good tip!

  4. Kathy S
    Kathy S says:

    I had a free hour last night after doing some work at home and what did I decide to do? First I practiced piano for 30 mins… then I plopped in front of my laptop and watched UFO videos on YouTube (and they were all fake). I should have read a book. Damn internet :(

  5. Jon Morrow
    Jon Morrow says:

    So true. It’s just another way of putting yourself on autopilot.

    Mentally, I think most people classify their time after work as “winding down to go to sleep” time. They limit themselves to certain “acceptable” activities, and then they wonder why they’re bored as hell.

    Personally, I think it’s a myth. You don’t need 4-6 hours to wind down at night. Plus, who wants to live that way? It’s your life. Do what you want with it instead of letting it get organized into a pattern you don’t enjoy.

    I’ve found I like working all day with little breaks in between. For instance, instead of working from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., I might work from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m., take a break until 11:30 a.m., work until 2 p.m., take a break until 4 p.m., work until 8 p.m., take a break until 9 p.m., and then read for two hours before I go to sleep.

    I change it up every day, but follow the same general pattern seven days per week. Of course, I don’t have any kids, and I work from home, so that makes it easier.

    In general though, I think you can be happier by removing barriers, not creating them, especially when it comes to your own happiness.

    * * * * * * *
    Love this comment — so many good ideas for getting out of a rut. Also, I like how you look at a four-hour “wind-down” as a barrier to doing somthing that feels good. It’s true. It is. And think abou it: Anyone who needs four hours to wind down at the end of the day, is way too wound up during the day. And then those breaks make sense.

    Thanks for the insights, Jon.

    –Penelope

  6. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    I wanted to learn to type but found it way too boring to practice very much. Then I found myself watching a bunch of dumb programs every night on TV.

    So I put an unplugged keyboard on my lap and tried to type what the people were saying on TV. When I had trouble with a word I went over it slowly again and again and then picked up the dialogue when I got tired of repeating that word.

    After about two months I stopped taking notes with a pen. I’m still not a great typist but it was fun and a major accomplishment for me.

  7. David B. Bohl at SlowDownFAST.com
    David B. Bohl at SlowDownFAST.com says:

    Penelope,

    I couldn’t agree more. Learning and investigation are huge and important parts of deciding not only what makes us happy, but it reminds us and illustrates for us what doesn’t work in our lives and what may be causing unhappiness.

    I look at it as a research function. I need to read, and surf the Net, and go out and meet people. I simply need to experience life.

    David

  8. Queercents
    Queercents says:

    Penelope,

    So I agree with the thoughts on needing to "wind down" at night. During one particular stressful year at work, I got into the habit of using a glass of wine as my transition between the work day and the evening. Let me pour you a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and I'll tell you all about it!

    I work from home and it became my way of de-stressing from the day. I look back on my single days and rarely drank because I was always heading off to yoga or some other evening activity. My partner and I finally decided that we needed to start acting "single" a few nights a week – and get back in the good habit of being productive, creative, and less stressed without alcohol. Coupledom should inspire, not lull us into complacency.

  9. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Great post! Running at 9 p.m. is impressive. I love the idea of continually challenging yourself in new ways. It does make things more exciting – and I think it definitely makes life more satisfying.

  10. Greg
    Greg says:

    I need to get past the pasta!

    You can harp all day about getting off the couch, but as soon as you do things start to happen, the same can be true for the computer screen.

  11. Joan Woodbrey
    Joan Woodbrey says:

    I recently had my cable disconnected for this very reason. It had become such a habit to come home, grab something to eat and sit in front of the tube for hours on end before finally going to bed. I had forgotten all about how good I felt when I actually worked out after work, cooked my boyfriend and I a new recipe for dinner and sat and talked with each other, instead of sitting beside each other staring at the TV. Now I feel happier, healthier and more satisfied with my day to day life. And, as we all know, being healthy and happy with yourself, can lead to success in other areas of life as well.

    Thanks for this post.

  12. John Goodman
    John Goodman says:

    Good post!
    It’s all about getting out of the rut we put ourselves in. It might be easier to start by changing the things we already do rather than initially finding new things to challenge us. Why not try driving a different way to work? Walk the dog a different route? Change the circuit or exercises you already do at home or the gym? These are things you’re doing already; now just do them differently. This should get that old cerebral cortex chuggin’ along sufficiently that you’ll now want to try new and different things too!

  13. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    I really needed to read this today so I can’t thank you enough for posting this! I finished college about a year and a half ago and as soon as I graduated I got a full time job. Ever since then I have been very down. You have inspired me I am going to change things up a bit. Thanks Penelope!!!

  14. Gladstone
    Gladstone says:

    Timely. I have established an after-work routine in the last month or so that is very fulfilling. OK, I’ll stop torturing you all with anticipation. Here it is:

    6-7.30: eat dinner and work out on Chuck Norris Total Gym.==sustenance and maintenance

    7.30: watch Pure in Heart, Korean soap opera==diversion, ‘unwinding’

    8-9:email, web browsing, trumpet and computer blogs and forums, with Law & Order on in the background==maintenance

    9-10:read technical books about the work I do==challenge, learning

    10-11:practice trumpet==learning, challenging

    11+ go to bed or catch part of a movie, usually on TCM.

    I look forward to this and enjoy all of it. My wife enjoys me working out because she can stand there and talk to me and I can’t get away. I enjoy the learning I’m doing for my job, and developing jazz improv and range skills on trumpet is very satisfying. Before I know it, it’s bed time and then a new day. Sitting in front of the boob tube the whole time would be draining and depressing. So would lying in bed, which is what depressives seem to do. Chicken or egg?

  15. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I think the “time” element is important and whether one is “investing” one’s time or “spending” one’s time…(think how one does this around money). One does not have to be “do-ing” to invest one’s time. There are many ways to invest in time while “be-ing”. You can sit and do nothing and be nothing (veging, unconscious) and you can sit and do nothing yet be someome.

  16. Joyce Maroney
    Joyce Maroney says:

    How about spending some of that after work time stretching yourself AND helping others who need your help? Volunteer led youth organizations like scouting sorely need leaders. Non-profit organizations need volunteers and board members. Your town or city has lots of committees that need members for civic projects. I get the TIME issue – have 2 kids, a husband, a schnauzer and a full time management job myself. I do, however, serve on a non-profit board and a town committee. Even a small amount of your time can make a big difference to these organizations.

    * * * * * *
    Well, this comment points out a glaring problem with a lot of volunteer work — it doesn’t always stretch us. Finding volunteer work that stretches is not always easy. But might make the idea of volunteering more appealing.

    –Penelope

  17. Dale
    Dale says:

    Penny,

    “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.”

    This was perhaps the statement that resonated most with me. For the reason that many of us also use our kids to excuse us from stretching our boundries. Now don’t get me wrong, children wear you out – I know, I have alot of little ones. But I also know that I need to do something other than work 8 to 5, and be my little pony to my daughters or a rodeo bull to my sons after hours.
    Not only will extending my boundries make me more capable at work, but a better parent at home.

  18. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    God, I love your blog but your TV comments are driving me crazy. So once again, I am driven to post. One, I think your problem and a lot of the problem with the constant TV scapegoating (why not add going to movies in there?) is the outdated notion people have of watching TV and what that means. Most people picture a person sitting on the sofa aimlessly turning the channels and watching random shows. Sure that might happen once in awhile to take a little relaxation in life but in this day and age, TV is about connecting to shows you love and watching them in order with a purpose in mind whether it be to understand them, empathize with them or talk with your friends about them.

    Gen Y is taking control back over their TV shows with the internet and now can watch them whenever they want while being able to connect to a community of people who love TV shows as well. So it can be just as much about those relationships that are important to happiness. And I strongly believe that narrative can add a lot to people’s lives no matter what the medium. Shows really are getting more intelligent these days and people don’t just comfortably watch them but think about them and even more importantly engage with them whether it is writing about them, creating stories about them, making transformative video and various other things that stretch people mentally. So think twice before you mention TV in a way that’s about the past and instead think about the current and future ways people use entertainment.

  19. mattgenton
    mattgenton says:

    hi to all at blog.penelopetrunk.com i thought i had sent this newyears eve but it didnt send so i have sent it again all best for 2012 to you all
    – matty

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