Why Being Happy at Your Job is a Silly Idea

Where did we get this idea from, that we should be happy at our jobs?

“As long as you’re happy in your job….”

“When you’re happy with your job, it won’t feel like work….”

How often have you heard someone say things like this to you? This idea of a job bringing happiness, continuous joy to the extent that the pure emotion overrides any lack of income, free time, or control is silly, and I think we all need to stop saying it.

“But I am happy in my job!” That one person will say. No, I say. The dictionary may say that joy, contentedness, satisfaction are all synonyms for happiness, but I disagree. Some of us are lucky and privileged enough to find work in fields we are passionate about, but even then, there is no guarantee for joy. What is this weird pressure to find happiness from working for someone/something else? And if we are not happy in our jobs, then it is our fault– we are lazy, we are over-qualified, we are under-qualified, we are overpaid and compensate with over-indulging, or we are under-paid and must take on another job to balance the other.

What if we stopped creating this unreasonable pressure to “be happy” at our jobs? In fact, what if we stopped asking about happiness altogether?

I think the word has taken on larger definitions than the dictionary can hold. I think the word, and the pursuit of the emotion it promises leads so many of us to wonder….. “Why aren’t I happier?” I do not believe humans are meant to “feel happy” one hundred percent of the time. Even if nothing is catastrophically wrong with our lives, this does not equate to happiness all day.

Instead of inquiring about happiness, I choose to focus on joy. I think a good job would be one where we experience moments of joy on every shift. More than that, such a job would ideally make us feel that we are the best human being for that job, that something about our person, our character, and our experience would make us specially qualified and needed at that particular job.

When someone asks, “Are you happy?” I want to clarify. In this moment? This hour? Eating this ice cream cone? Sure. But luckily, thankfully, I have this super-complex brain that allows me to feel more than one emotion at a time. I can have a good day, get momentarily mad when a driver cuts me off on the highway, feel an appropriate emotional response to it, and then feel “neutral” for the rest of my drive home. Not being happy, or not feeling happy does not automatically mean a person is experiencing a negative emotion. Can you actually imagine feeling true happiness ALL DAY? It would be exhausting!

“A lifetime of happiness? No man can bear it: it would be hell on earth.” -George Bernard

Feeling content, sure. Feeling grateful, sure. Feeling thoughtful, sure. Feeling open to moments of joy throughout the day, absolutely.

Moments of joy, not happiness. This is the reality, and I do not see anything wrong or lesser in that description. As writer Eric Wilson wrote, “To desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic”.


Changing My Idea of Free Time

When aspects of our life are not fulfilling, we seek out other ways to fill the void. This is not always a negative thing, and certainly I am the first to admit that despite grad school, dog ownership, relationships, sickness or health, I enjoy watching things move on a screen. TV shows and movies are highly enjoyable to me, but it took my nearly 25 years to realize the vicious cycle of free time vs work, and how so many of us are addicted to certain habits in order to “relax and have fun.”

When I think about the forty+ hour work week, I wonder what the long term benefits are of only having two of every seven days to call our own. When I hear people talking about their fantasy retirement, I wonder “what about the 30, 40, 50 years until then??”

Meeko gives up on her day whenever she finds a good spot to nap in

I don’t want to think of my free time in terms of years, weeks, or even days. Free time is every half hour of my day that I’m not working for someone else. Five o’clock is no longer the hour when I give up on my day.

Over a year ago, I was writing only a few hours a week. Sure, I did research on publishing and literary journals, but deep down I knew I could be trying harder. Every day that guilt sat at the bottom of my stomach, pulling me into self-doubt and making me question whether I could call myself a writer at all.

My long-term motivation comes from completing projects and completing to-do lists. Short-term motivation comes from imagining how I will feel after accomplishing a small task. It is certain that I will not achieve any of my goals if I do not begin with simply finishing the short story or essay at hand. My planner holds my time commitments for the week so that my brain doesn’t spend energy remembering appointments.

It is a privilege that the hardships in my life are faceable, and fixable for the most part. I am grateful that I can choose to work on my writing goals this evening, after a shift at my temp job. 

There is no age limit where we should give up on our dreams. It is a privilege that we can use our free time to achieve our goals, so let’s get to work.