The Feel-good Trap: How The Search For Happiness Is Keeping You Stuck In Your Shift (And What To Focus On Instead)

Not happy – either with your current work, or with how your career change is going? Natasha explains why the way you understand happiness could be holding you back – and how a new perspective can speed up your shift.

Are you happy?

These days, it seems, there's no bigger question.

The search for happiness has exploded into centre stage: in the academic world of science and philosophy, in the pop-psychology section of your local bookshop, and in general public consciousness.

A Google search for 'happiness' yields 495,000,000 results.

Amazon doesn't bother telling you exactly how many books you can buy on the topic; it stopped counting at 50,000.

The pursuit of happiness has found its way into the workplace too, with companies hiring happiness consultants, creating happiness initiatives and appointing chief happiness officers.

To live a happy life then, it seems, is our ultimate goal.

And if you're seeking a career change, that likely has a lot to do with how happy – or not – you're feeling at work.

The wrong end of the happiness stick

The conversation around happiness is thousands of years old, with its roots in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

But the word is used today with a very specific definition – a version of the idea that's much narrower (and more fickle) than Aristotle was talking about.

And that difference in understanding might actually be holding you back in your shift.

Aristotle differentiated between two types of happiness:

1. Hedonic happiness: momentary joy, pleasure, and contentment in your life, and
2. Eudaimonic happiness: a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that makes you whole.

Think of happiness today, and you think of hedonic happiness.

In the media, it's everywhere. People in advertisements dance on their way to work. Romcoms end as soon as the couple enters the dopamine-flooded honeymoon period.

It's all about heady bliss and excitement and joy.

That's what life is supposed to be like, right?

But hedonic happiness is only a tiny part of the picture.

The trouble with hedonic happiness

You'd think that with all this focus on hedonic happiness in our cultural conversations, there would be plenty of it around.

But it doesn't actually seem to be all that effective. In fact, multiple experts argue that the search for it can actually stunt our ability to be happy in the present moment.

And running after pleasure has some uncomfortable side effects, which will probably feel very familiar to you as a career changer.

1. Shame

If you've bought in to the chase for happiness, then the discomfort of unhappiness gets multiplied.

You're not just unhappy at work. You're unhappy about how unhappy you are. It can feel incredibly shameful; a dark secret that festers below the parapet of your day-to-day life.

When I was in the midst of my career change, I was swamped by an overwhelming sense that I had got life fundamentally wrong.

Not only had I chosen the wrong career (which I decided was a failure on my part), I was also now miserable. I had failed at my career, and I had failed to be happy – and being happy, it seemed from everything I could see around me, was the important thing to strive for in life. I berated myself constantly for my immaturity and lack of direction. I'd look at myself in the mirror with disbelief – how had I managed to go so off-track?

So there you find yourself, blanketed under layer upon layer of sadness, and sadness about your sadness, and shame about your sadness…

2. Isolation

Shame is secretive.

In today's society, the 'sad' can rapidly become self-selected social pariahs.

It's embarrassing to have failed at any big thing you're supposed to find; whether that's a great career or a basic level of daily joy.

So you isolate. You hide. You paste on a smile, you minimise, and you reserve your less chirpy emotions for the quiet moments.

You lie in bed, with your head spinning in the darkness, trying to figure it out alone.

Maybe you tell your friends, your partner, about how you're feeling. But in the back of your mind you're constantly worried about the impact that sharing these negative feelings is having. Are they fed up with you yet? Are you going to drive them away with your toxic sadness? What is an acceptable level of negativity to share over a meal with family?

I know the feeling well. I pasted on a smile every morning at work. I told my friends I was 'fine', and 'good' whenever I saw them. I'd moan to my colleagues and my partner about my work, but I'd do it in a normal, good-natured way. It was rare I truly let anyone in on the depth of the despair I was feeling every morning.

And that isolation kept me trapped.

3. Distraction

You're unhappy. You're unhappy about the fact that you're unhappy.

And your unhappiness about your unhappiness demands your attention.

Your focus divides.

Part of it is spent on looking for solutions to your career change.

But the rest disappears down an endless black hole of focus on how you're feeling miserable and you shouldn't be.

Why can't you figure this out? Why can't you find happiness? Why can't you just be positive?

You beat yourself up.

It takes energy.

And it diverts your attention from what you're truly seeking.

Or as Todd Kashdan, author of The Upside of Your Dark Side says:

“There is a not-so-hidden prejudice against negative states, and the consequence of avoiding these states is that you inadvertently stunt your growth, maturity, adventure, and meaning and purpose in life.”

4. Numbness

In 1972, after studying the isolated Fori tribe in Papua New Guinea, who were cut off from all external input, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen found that there are six basic emotions that are universal to all of humanity:

  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Happiness
  • Sadness, and
  • Surprise.

Perhaps you've noticed: only one of those six is an emotion that we currently view as 'positive'.

The rest, according to modern society, are sensations to be avoided.

Doesn't that seem strange?

More recently, studies have concluded that Ekman's study was limited, and there are in fact 27 basic emotions, a greater number of which are perceived as positive.

But whether there are six or 600 human emotions, if hedonic happiness is our ultimate goal, we're narrowing our field of acceptable experiences as human beings down to just one dimension.

The pursuit of consistent hedonic pleasure requires that we reject the majority of what it means to be human.

When I was making my career change, I felt ashamed of my negative emotions. I hid them from other people, but I also did my best to turn them off in myself. I'd try to 'shake off' my bad days, distract myself from the waves of sadness that flowed over me throughout the day.

But as I numbed out those negative emotions, I realised I was actually numbing out everything. For a long while, I floated through my days, not-present and zombie-like, constantly afraid of another encounter with my own discomfort and pain.

5. Exhaustion

The other issue with a focus on hedonic happiness is that, according to most psychologists, it's impossible to maintain.

Psychologists call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation – the idea that no matter how good something makes us feel, most of the time we drift back to where we started. One often-cited study showed that despite the initial joy of the win, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners 18 months later.

During the late 1990s, psychologist Michael Eysenck referred to this as the “hedonic treadmill theory”; the idea that no matter what positive change is made in your life, at some point it will begin to feel like 'normality', and you'll start craving the next hedonic kick.

The idea of a 'treadmill' certainly corresponded to my experience during my career change – the sensation that I was sprinting wildly toward something I craved, but never seemed to be making any real progress. I'd lie in bed at night, my mind spinning in circles. I'd hit upon a great idea (or so I thought), but then the next morning it would seem ridiculous and childish. I'd try to turn on my 'positive attitude' as I scrolled through job sites, but after six pages of trying to see opportunities where there were none, it would be gone as fast as it had arrived.

So, if hedonic happiness is a red herring, what about eudaimonic happiness?

And how can you apply it to your shift?

Shift the focus to a different kind of happiness

Eudaimonic happiness – the other angle on happiness Aristotle discussed – is a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that makes you whole.

The idea of eudaimonia focuses on a well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it.

It's an unfamiliar idea for many of us, taught as we are that pure joy is the ultimate goal.

But what would it be like if you paid the same attention to living fully as you did to being happy?

To squeeze every drop out of every part of life, whether it included laughter or tears?

To aim not for blissed-out, loved-up, but for used-up, well-rounded, and evenly spread?

“It's a really odd thing that we're now seeing people saying, 'Write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep,' and 'Cheer up' and 'Happiness is our birthright,' and so on.

“We're kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position — it's rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are.

“Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don't teach us much ... I'd like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word 'happiness' and to replace it with the word 'wholeness'.

“Ask yourself: 'Is this contributing to my wholeness?' and if you're having a bad day, it is.”
– Hugh Mackay, author of The Good Life

Eudaimonia is a multifaceted and intense topic, which could be studied and explored for years.

But for you, as a career changer, there are three powerful ways to start.

1. Welcome everything

“Two types of avoidance cause problems for people: avoiding pleasure and avoiding pain….” – Todd Kashdan, author of The Upside of Your Dark Side

The more you push away the discomfort you're feeling, the more it grows.

So what might it be like to embrace it?

And beyond just embracing it, to welcome it with interest and curiosity?

What are these emotions telling you? Each and all of them?

Beyond 'not-this', what can you learn from the precise moments that discomfort raises its head?

When do you feel most contented, and what does that say about you?

When do you feel most ill-at-ease, and what can you discover from that about what you want?

Can you relish the experience of being in the 'wrong' career as a period of extreme growth and discovery?

And what might happen if you allowed the people in your life to get in on what you're up to?

The Sufi poet Rumi said it best:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi, 'The Guest House'

2. Create variety

If you're willing to welcome everything, and you still want to feel good wherever possible, well-known happiness experts Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky found that variety is a powerful way to keep yourself off the hedonic treadmill.

When your experiences are fresh or unexpected, you get a burst of energy and appreciation. When a positive experience is repetitive – when you know exactly what to expect – you don't get the same kick out of it.

In other words, you'll feel better about a new friendship if the two of you spend time doing new things together, rather than going for coffee at the same place, at the same time, every week.

You'll enjoy your new home more if you do new things in it, discovering it in a fresh light and creating new memories over and over again.

You'll enjoy your career change more if you approach it in a multitude of ways, rather than just scrolling through the same job sites every day on your lunch break…

And in terms of your career change, introducing variety doesn't just make you feel better about what you're doing. It's actually one of the most powerful things you can do to generate new ideas.

“For the systems thinkers among you, it's a simple concept: new inputs = new outputs.

“And for the more poetic types, there's the gorgeously gaited quotation: 'If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got.'

“To come up with fresh, exciting possibilities for your future career, one that feels fulfilling and inspiring and right for you, it's time to start bringing in new inputs. You need to start seeing new sights; experiencing new things; looking at the world from new perspectives.”
Read more here

3. Build personal projects

Psychologist Brian Little marks a big distinction between the pursuit of happiness and what he calls 'the happiness of pursuit.'

Over decades of research, Little has found that focusing on personal projects is a better measure of people's quality of life than their emotional states.

“When people are asked to reflect upon their lives, it's one's appraisals of personal projects that seem to be the best predictor of a life well-lived.”

Personal projects can take a huge range of forms: redecorating your kitchen, training for a marathon, writing a book, spending time with your children...

They are what you choose to spend your time – to fill your life – with.

And personal projects can also be powerful tools in moving us towards a more fulfilling career.

At Careershifters, we call them Shift Projects.

They're a chance to try new things – increasing the variety in your life – but they're also a chance to throw yourself into something that isn't your current career.

Your personal projects are a behind-the-scenes secret just for you: something to look forward to at the end of the day, or something to be proud of having achieved that's yours and yours alone.

And they help you gain clarity on the 'what' of what you might want to do next, and on the 'how', or the viability of your ideas.

A focus on eudaimonic happiness isn't just a more realistic approach to life. It gets you closer to a fulfilling career, faster.

Career change is a challenging process.

Realising you're in the wrong line of work can be painful and scary, and trying to do something about it can be even tougher.

But that's OK.

You don't have to be blissfully happy all the time. You don't have to get it right every time.

Nobody is, and nobody does.

So give yourself a break – let yourself feel all the ways there are for you to feel. Play with them.

And then learn from what you discover along the way.

How could you start shifting your perspective on happiness, and use it to move your shift forward? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.