We spend so much energy trying to decide what career will make us happy, what job to take, what kind of boss we need. But today happiness is actually a science, and we can teach ourselves to make better decisions faster based on what we know about happiness.

This science of happiness is such a popular field that 150 colleges offer courses in it. If you can’t take a class, read this article in New York magazine for a fun introduction to the topic.

The article is slanted for New Yorkers because New Yorkers are more unhappy than everyone else, (which is unfortunate since I live there). But most of the information in the article is useful to everyone.

For example: “No matter where they live, human beings are terrible predictors of what will make them happy.” This is because our mind plays tricks on us: “We are more comfortable with decisions we can’t reverse than ones we can.”

Here is something that really affected me: “Those who seek out the best options in life are called maximizers. And maximizers, in practically every study, are far more miserable than people who are willing to make do.” One way to stop being a maximizer is to move to where you have fewer choices, (which takes us back to the New York City problem.) Another way is to make choices faster, before you obsessively weigh every possibility.

Other zingers: Kids don’t make you happy, losing limbs doesn’t make you sad, and if you have as much money as the people you hang out with you’ll feel like you have enough.

How can you not be curious about this article? I read it three times.

Now, if I could only make better choices…

There’s disconcerting news in CareerJournal today. They list the top ten professions, using generally the same criteria that Salary.com used to come up with its list of the ten best professions. And the only professions that are (only sort of) on both lists are: “analyst” and “social worker/psychologist”.

Analyst is such a broad term that it is almost useless, but it is conveniently something that requires almost the complete opposite skills as social worker/psychologist. So at least most personality types have an opportunity here.

Maybe the only really actionable advice on this topic comes from what has become one of my favorite sources for career advice, New York Magazine. Here’s a quote from a funny and informed lecture on happiness by Ben Mathis-Lilley:

“Don’t go to law school. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions, and it’s not just because their jobs are more stressful. For most people, job stress has little effect on happiness unless it is accompanied by a lack of control (lawyers, of course, have clients to listen to) or involves taking something away from somebody else (a common feature of the legal system).”

That advice is not just for lawyers, it’s for everyone. Even if you can’t be an analyst or psychologist, at least get a job where you have control over your work.

What is control? For some people, it’ll mean working for yourself. But you can have control working for other people, too.

I asked David Blanchflower, professor at Dartmouth College who is known for slicing data to create happiness equations, “What does having control over one’s work really mean?”

He said that control goes beyond just workload and pace. “People don’t like to feel there’s a risk of being fired. They like control over what they wear, they want access to the heat control.”

Surprisingly, in study after study, women report more job satisfaction than men do. So maybe the biggest factor in whether or not you feel like you have control over your work is not whether you’re in a “best profession” but whether or not you’re a woman.

Recently, Aaron Karo performed stand-up comedy in a string of sold-out shows. He also bills himself as an author, a public speaker, and a sitcom actor. Karo has always juggled a few careers. After college, he went to work for an investment bank. But he was also writing a weekly newsletter that had tens of thousands of subscribers. And he wrote a book.

About ten years ago, British management guru Charles Handy predicted that people would replace the idea of one, full-time job, with several different part-time occupations. He called this the “portfolio career,” and Karo provides a good example of how this trend is taking shape.

A portfolio career is not the same thing as holding down three bad jobs and wishing you could figure out what to do with yourself. Rather, it is a scheme you pursue purposefully and positively, as a way to achieve financial or personal goals or a mixture of both. This new type of career choice can include several highly skilled, professional posts, often mixing employment with self-employment, and volunteer work or learning work with fee-based work.

While there has been scattered adoption of the portfolio career among baby boomers, the idea is gaining a lot of traction among younger workers, even though they never use the term. The Electronic Recruiting Exchange reports that as many as a third of new workers are looking for alternatives to full-time employment. For people in their twenties and early thirties, a portfolio career is a means of self-discovery, hedging one’s bets, and protecting their quality of life.

Most people have skills that cross into more than one profession. And if you take any one of the popular personality tests offered by web sites and career counselors you will find that peoples’ personalities do not fit neatly into one type of profession either.

So the idea of having to choose one single profession is frequently unappealing. Ezra Zuckerman, associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told me, “A lot of people feel alienated when thy feel there is more to themselves that they have not shown [in their work].” Young people are particularly drawn to the idea of a career as a vehicle to fulfillment and self-actualization, so they are less apt than Handy’s generation to settle into one, narrow career.

The arguments for a portfolio career at the beginning of one’s adult life are clear. Professor of psychology at Harvard, Daniel Gilbert, told me that the best way to figure out what will make you happy is to try it. A portfolio career gives you the opportunity to try three or four types of work at the same time, and to keep switching out choices until you come up with a portfolio that you like.

Karo, for example, dropped the banking career when he stopped liking the daily suit-and-tie routine. And when I ask him when his next book is coming out, he hems and haws and it’s clear that the career as an author is not so appealing — at least right now.

The trick in all career decisions is to figure out the intersection of your skills and your passions. This is an ongoing process, not a final destination, so a portfolio of part-time careers is more conducive to this path of discovery than a single, eight-hours-every-day career. Andrew Zacharakis, professor at Babson College told me, “Passion is something you have to look for every day of your life. Your passion is likely to change over time but finding your passion is good practice. Part of the search for you passion should be a search to know what your skill set is. Ask parents, mentors, and friends. Try to mach skills you have with your passion.”

The problem with a portfolio career is that you run the risk being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none — a problem in terms of both money and fulfillment.

“The most secure portfolio careers are with people who have a fairly solid skill base that people will pay for,” says Ian Christie, career coach and author of the Bold Career blog. “You have to hang your hat on something. Either a functional skill, like accounting and you can be, say, a personal trainer at home. Or you need to find a market niche and provide a lot of services, such as training, development, outsource contracting, etcetera.

And you probably need a creative outlet in your portfolio. “When we are involved in creativity we feel that we are living more fully than in the rest of life,” says, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Any work can include creative thinking, but, he told me, “if you want to be creative then you must learn to do something well,” To excel at something requires you to challenge yourself continually. Achieving high skill level at something is an important step toward fulfillment because, “most people want to think they have explored the limits of their potential.”

Karo says he receives a lot of email from people asking how they can follow their creative dreams. And his advice is, appropriately, the Instant-message-length version of Handy’s book-length theory: “You’ve gotta do it on the side. Diversify your revenue streams. Do what you’re passionate about.”

American dream has changed. It used to be a college education, a steady job, a nice house (and a family to fill it), and a better financial picture than your parents. There is a new American Dream that is still about “doing better than your parents” but not in a financial sense. This dream is about fulfillment.

Boston-based artist, Ariel Freiberg, just got engaged, and she and her fiancé are gearing up for this new dream. “We were brought up to think it’s important to own a piece of property. It’s how you build your life in this country. But buying a house is not a major goal for us. It is not what will make our lives secure and it will not help us define ourselves.”

“The idea of the American dream is taken out from under us,” explains Anya Kamenetz, blogger and author of the book Generation Debt. “There used to be a contract with employers — healthcare, pensions, predicable employment,” but today there are none of those guarantees.

Additionally, the cost of a college education is far outpacing inflation, making it more difficult to make this first steps toward the American Dream, according to Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-somethings Can’t Get Ahead. The average student loans come to around $20,000, which means $200 a month out of an entry-level paycheck. On top of that between 1995 and 2002 median rents in almost all major cities have increased more than 50%.

Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech about how “a lot of kids don’t know what work is” and young people “think work is a four-letter word.” These were not renegade words, but rather an expression of the prevailing attitude among her fellow baby boomers.

The boomers mistake a rejection of their American Dream as a rejection of reality. But here’s some news: Young people know that work is a reality for everyone. It’s just that everyone needs to work toward something; so young people have a new American Dream.

“The new American Dream is much more entrepreneurial,” says Kamenetz. “And it’s about shaping ones own destiny: mobility, flexibility to do your own work and the ability to have a career as an expression of who you are as a person.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you craft your own version of the new American Dream:

1. Cushion an entry-level salary with a move back home.
The first step in restructuring the American Dream is to save money to ensure flexibility. Moving back with your parents is smart if you can do it. Most jobs are in big cities, and starting salaries simply cannot pay the rent in those cities. People who are not able to get subsidized housing from parents are much more limited in terms of their early career choices.

2. Get comfortable with risk taking.
The new American Dream is for risk takers. This is actually not groundbreaking in terms of the American Dream. For immigrants, the American Dream has always meant risk-taking. But today young people are taking risks that parents would have never dreamed of, like playing contact sports without any health insurance and signing up for a mortgage with a freelance career.

3. Protect your time.
The American Dream of Baby Boomers came at the expense of personal time and family time. Success is not having more things than your parents. It’s having more time. More time for hobbies, for travel, for kids. “It’s not about how much money you have, it’s about living your life on your own terms,” says Barbara Stanny, financial coach and author of Overcoming Underearning.

4. Don’t assume personal fulfillment requires a small career.
Sure, the new American Dream has nothing to do with financial studliness. But don’t sell yourself short in the name of personal time. “Higher earners with balanced lives don’t work more hours, they are just more focused,” says Stanny. “To make more money you don’t have to work more hours. There is a difference between settling for a low income and taking a job to feed your soul.”

5. Buy as small a home as you can.
You preserve the most options for your future if you can buy a home on one income. “The advice used to be: always buy the most expensive house you can afford because it’s an investment. Today it’s different. Buy only the amount of house that you need so it doesn’t become an albatross around your neck.” says Phyllis Moen, author of Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream.

6. Make decisions by looking inside yourself.
Be aware of the tradeoffs you’re making. For example, big cities are exciting and filled with career opportunity, but you pay a high premium for living there.

When talking about her decision to stay in Boston, Freiberg says, “There’s a certain vibration living in the city that feeds me and my fiancé — this inspiration is something that we can’t get in the suburbs.”

Choices are difficult today because the new American Dream is not as measurable as the old one. You cannot look at your bank statement or count your bedrooms to assess your success. The new American dream is about fulfillment, which is a murky, slippery goal, but young people like Freiberg know it when they feel it, and you will, too.

We are bad at predicting what will make us happy, so the best way to pick a career is to study people to see if you like what their life is like. If you do, then try their career.

This is not very efficient, though. I mean, you can’t study that many people. So New York Magazine’s Watching the Clock is a gift for all you career searchers. You can read a minute-by-minute account of each person’s day.

Of course, it’s an account of their best day. No one reports anything like “1:36 pm put head on desk and worried about failure.” But still, you can learn a lot from reading about how someone really spends their day.

Also, you can learn about yourself by watching how you read the pages — you will read carefully what seems like the most fun to you. When I read, for example, I went first to the publicist, and relished every minute of his day. I even took pleasure the relentless pitching he did, within this piece, for his client, Bombay Sapphire. I skimmed the location scout’s day, and the contractor’s day. I read five scattered words about the chef’s day and they were all about food (who eats porchetta anyway?) and I couldn’t bring myself to read anymore. So no cooking school for me. Ever.

What if you like reading all of the profiles equally? Maybe you should be a librarian.

Today is the official announcement of my blog. I actually started blogging three months ago, when I was doing interviews for my recent column about blogging. It became clear that anyone who is very serious about their career should have a blog, and I didn’t have one.

It turns out, it is not that easy to blog. Well, it’s easy to write a blog for an audience of six best friends and your mom. But if you want to be seen as an expert in your field by making a significant contribution to the daily community discussion, then you need to think things through a bit.

Fortunately, I’m a person who loves to learn something new. Here’s what I did:

1. I called all the people I knew who were bloggers and asked them about their technique.

2. I spent two hours a night for a month reading other peoples’ blogs. I read hotshot blogs, like Lifehacker and smaller blogs like Communication Nation.

3. I started blogging furtively. I told only my blog mentor and my brother (who said “You should get a better picture of yourself.”)

Today is the last step: Announcing the blog to everyone else.

It turns out that I really love blogging. It appeals to three very big aspects of my personality: I love to write, I love routine, and I’ll read anything. This last thing is genetic, I think. My mom will read anything, too. My mom has an amazing memory, and she was on the game show Jeopardy. I don’t have her memory, but I’m a good synthesizer of information, and blogging is a great outlet for that.

According to the guys who wrote the best selling book Freakonomics, the idea of talent is overrated. What makes people stand out — concert pianists, Olympic athletes (and probably big-time bloggers) is that they love to practice. They love to do it day in and day out and so they get really good at it.

This is the reason that people should do what they love — because that’s what they’ll be really good at because they’ll do it a lot. So I’m happy to have found something I love.

For those of you who are still looking for something you love, you should know that I did not know that I would love blogging before I tried it. In fact, before I tried it, I thought blogging would be a daily pain in the butt. But I took a risk because I know you can’t find what you’re really good at without trying a lot of things.

Blogging is a very big time investment. And it’s not like I'm getting paid to do this. But you cannot get paid to do everything in life. I have made almost all my big career steps by doing something that I did not get paid for. I have written business plans with no assurance that they’d be funded (I got the money). And I have contributed time and ideas with no assurance that I’d get credit (I got a job).

In this case, I’m not really sure where the blog will lead, but I feel strongly that I need to be doing it, to contribute to the online conversation about work and life. Some days I worry about how much time I spend on the blog, but I tell myself that good things happen to those who take risks to do things they love. So, I’m doing that. We’ll see what happens.

Women who want to have kids should make it a high priority in their early twenties to find a partner. This week’s Newsweek cover story, Marriage by the Numbers, says is okay to wait until after 35 to get married. Newsweek is revising the saying that a woman has more chance of getting hit by a truck than getting married after age 35.

But the article ignores one of the most pressing issues facing Generation X: Infertility. No generation of women has had more trouble with fertility than this generation who received the terrible advice, “Wait. You have time. Focus on your career first.”

In fact, you have your whole life to get a career. This is not true about having a baby.

Even if you are past your early twenties, or not heterosexual, if you’re single and want to have kids with a partner, you need to find one now. Take that career drive and direct it toward mating because your career skills will outlast your ovaries.

In case you think you’re waiting for “the right time,” there is no evidence to show when in a woman’s career is best to have kids. At any point, she is thrown off track. At any point when a woman has kids, statistically she will start to earn less money even if she takes no maternity leave whatsoever. There is no evidence to show that it’s easier to take time out of the workforce at a certain point in a career. People just plain don’t know.

Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, told me in an interview, “Don’t wait until the right time in your career to have a child or it will never come.”

However there is lots of evidence to show that a woman’s biological clock takes a nose-dive at age 35. I know, because that’s when I started having kids. The geneticist showed me and my husband a graph of Down’s Syndrome and we nearly keeled over when we saw the cliff at 35. We had no idea. That Down’s Syndrome cliff, though, is a stand-in for everything, because a huge percentage of fertility statistics get bad at 35.

There is also lots of evidence to say that having kids at least two years apart is best for the kids. However there is a distinct advantage for first-born kids. They are richer, smarter, and as if that’s not enough, year after year 90% of Harvard’s incoming freshmen are first-born. You can mitigate the impact of birth order on your second child by having three years between kids.

If you start when you are thirty-one, you can have two kids, three years apart, before you’re thirty-five. But this plan does not take into consideration that about 20% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage. This means you have almost a 50% chance of having to go through three pregnancies to have two kids, which means you should start when you’re thirty.

If you want to have babies when you’re thirty, then you probably want to be married when you’re twenty-eight. This is good news because if you marry very young you’re more likely to get divorced, but the statistics get much better if you wait until you’re twenty-five. For a healthy marriage, experts think people should be married two or three years before they consider having children. A reasonable expectation is to meet someone, date for a couple of years, and get engaged with almost a year’s time to pull off a wedding. So you need to meet the person at age twenty-four.

So this means that it may make sense for men to work full-speed ahead on their career in their early twenties, but women cannot afford that. Women need to make time in their lives to search for a mate in the same systematic, focused way that women have been searching for careers in their early twenties. And don’t tell yourself you’re waiting until you know yourself better. Getting to know yourself is a lifelong process, and after age twenty-five, waiting to get married won’t decrease your chance of divorce.

The good news here is that a large body of research shows that you will gain more happiness by being married than by having a good job. Yes, you should not have to choose between a good job and marriage. But this column is not about what is fair or what is just. It is about what is real.

You have a biological clock that does not pay attention to issues of social justice. You cannot control your biological clock and you cannot control the workplace. But you can control where you spend your time and energy, and you should look hard for a husband early on. Line up the marriage first, then the career.

 

Okay, so Danica Patrick still has not won a race, and now that the Indy 500 is over, a new round of complaining has started. There is truth the complaining. Patrick does have very good equipment in a sport where equipment matters a lot. And she does have more sponsors in a sport where other competitors have had to win a lot of races to get sponsors.

But instead of pointing out all the factors that make Patrick an anomaly, look at how she is like you: She is looking to do something she loves, and she is figuring out a way to make it work. She sees an opening — selling herself to the media as the only woman driver — and she takes it. This is not unfair. In fact, Jamie Birch reminds us that having a unique selling proposition is integral to good business and we all need one.

So as you’re doing your job, keep an eye open for what will make you pull ahead of the crowd, and don’t be discouraged in a field of fast drivers. You don’t need to win a race to have the best selling proposition.

You do, however, need to have a good understanding of what you offer. Be realistic of why someone is coming back to you. Patrick wishes people loved her because she wins races, but they love her because she’s the first woman. Don’t be so picky about why people love you — just leverage that affection to do the work you want to do.

You do not need to have an intellectually challenging job in order to be happy in your job. You need to feel like you are meeting a core need by being at your job.

I interviewed Sonja Lyubomirsky, assistant professor of psychology at University of California at Riverside, who studies what makes people happy. She stressed to me that research shows that a wide range of jobs make people happy.

For example, in one study, a janitor was happy in his work because he knew he was helping people by keeping his building clean. He had a core need to help. “People have important goals that come from inside themselves – for example, personal growth, community, or relationships,” says Lyubomirsky. “Jobs that allow you to meet intrinsic goals will lead to more happiness.”

When I was playing professional beach volleyball, I trained at the beach and the gym for eight hours a day. In the evenings, my job was to shelve books at a bookstore. It was pretty mindless, but what I needed during that time was contact with other people, and a chance to slow down. So I loved the job because it filled those needs.

Newsweek’s My Turn is by Kathy Kallenbach Clark, a woman who is at home with her kids all day, and although she has a master’s degree, she chooses to deliver pizzas at night. I love this essay because it challenges our snobby views of what kinds of jobs we should look for. (Though I have to add that the headline is sophomoric and irrelevant and borders on insulting the writer.)

I can totally understand why Clark wants to deliver pizzas after spending a day with kids. I spend a good portion of my days with my young sons, and there is no time to think. Kids require constant, low-level brain power and there is no chance to do any deep thinking. A pizza job is glorious thinking time to a mom who has very little otherwise.

When you are trying to figure out what kind of job to look for, think about what need you are really looking to fill. Be honest with yourself. Put your job snob away, and address your core needs.

The reason you should do what you love is because you won’t work hard at it if you don’t love it. And hard work is, in fact, more important in success than raw talent. The guys who wrote Freakonomics also write a column in the New York Times magazine, and this topic is the focus of their most recent column:

“When it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love “? because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don’t like to do things they aren’t “good” at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don’t possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.”

Of course, the difficult part is to figure out what you love. Maybe a better standard, though, is to figure out what you love to practice. That seems to eliminate a lot more possibilities right off the bat.