Are you convinced that you’ll only be happy once you finally get that promotion? If so, maybe you’re actually trapped by your goal. I’ll share my own experiences and tips on how I learned to be happy at whatever rung of the ladder I’m currently on. Because happiness is the goal, right?
When I need to solve any complex issue (such as a stalled career), I like to look at the problem from various perspectives:
When I came across the following quote, it really made me gasp with newfound awareness:
“When you have an idea that is making you suffer, you should let go of it, even (or perhaps especially) if it is an idea about your own happiness…
We should be free to experience the happiness that just comes to us without our having to seek it. If you are a free person, happiness can come over you just like that! Look at the moon. It travels in the sky completely free, and this freedom produces beauty and happiness. I am convinced that happiness is not possible unless it is based on freedom. If you are a free woman, if you are a free man, you will enjoy happiness. But if you are a slave, even if only the slave of an idea, happiness will be very difficult for you to achieve. That is why you should cultivate freedom, including freedom from your own concepts and ideas.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here
When I first read that quote I was struggling with the constant sadness that I never finished my band’s second album. I carried that sadness with me every day, and it was reaching a fever pitch when my wife and I were about to have our first child and all of our friends were saying, “Oh you’ll never have time for a hobby like music once baby arrives.” (I think they meant two hobbies since I’m a professional programmer, a musician, and I write this blog). But then I came across the above quote from Thich Nhat Hanh and I realized something amazing:
I didn’t want to record music anymore.
That realization would have hurt me deeply before, but with newfound clarity (and the help of meditation) I realized that I was already extremely happy with my day job, the side-hustle that is this blog, my time with my wife, and my surprisingly hilarious moments with my cat. Spending more hours in a recording studio was going to pull me away from the people and felines that I loved. Plus, I enjoy tinkering on my piano in my living room (which my day job bought me) way more than trying to “sell songs.” Don’t get me wrong, I still dream of music, but the dream doesn’t own me. I dream of the calm, gentle happiness I get when I find time to improvise on the piano. Essentially, I enjoy each moment. It doesn’t get more mindful than that.
For the first time in a long time, I felt like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. If I was already happy, then why was I letting myself be sad about a dream that I used to have? Could my thoughts about my career contain similar traps?
Months later I had a similar realization about my obsession with being promoted. Noticing that I was not being my ideal self (hey, it happens), I took some quiet time to think about whether or not I was “enslaved by the idea” that I would only become happy when I got the promotion. As you can tell from the title of this article, I didn’t actually need the promotion– but… I didn’t immediately feel happy upon that realization as I did with dropping music. I needed to remind myself if I was happy.
So, I picked up the ”gratitude journal” hat I had been neglecting. Gratitude journaling is a mindfulness technique where you write down three things each day that made you happy or grateful. The purpose of journaling is to connect you with the present. I wrote down things that had happened at work that day that did make me happy:
- I had a belly laugh with an ex-teammate at lunch
- I was able to help a more junior developer with a bug he was trying to fix
- I had a few minutes of downtime to learn a new technique in TypeScript (and how great it is that my job gives me time to learn)
The list was so extensive that I felt silly for even wanting more. Seeing all of my favorite job aspects together gave me an idea: why not build my career around the aspects that I see on this page? So with renewed enthusiasm, I set out to try every day to:
Since then my job reviews have skyrocketed, my peers seem to enjoy coming to work more, and I even got the promotion I was looking for. I have a feeling that they saw a happy guy and thought, “Let’s congratulate this person for coming to work happy.”
The funny thing is? I didn’t feel much happier on the day I got the promotion than I did the day I wrote down everything I was grateful for. But my intrinsic happiness was enough to get me extrinsic benefits.
Some of you reading this you might need a little more evidence. So let’s turn to the logical side of the argument.
We just described an easy way to determine what you like about your job, but we rarely consider if our next title will have responsibilities that we do not enjoy. This occurs more often than not, and therefore has a name, The Peter Principle, which describes how workers are often promoted to a “level of incompetence.”
I’m not trying to scare anyone away from getting a promotion, but it’s best to do your own due diligence and ask other people who have the job title you desire. What does their day look like? What are their favorite responsibilities? What are their least favorite?
Once you do the analysis, you’re better equipped to determine if the next level is right for you.
An extremely large study by Princeton University revealed that being paid more about a $75,000 salary does not increase happiness. After that point the strongest increase in happiness comes from other work factors like: enjoyment of the task, relationships with coworkers, and length of commute. This strange fact has been corroborated by other studies as well,
So ask yourself, will the change in salary really improve your life significantly? If the answer is, “yes” (which is totally understandable if you are below the national average or if you live in a place with high costs), then go get that promotion! You’ve taken the time to know yourself and you’ve recognized that you need to put in the additional effort/time/self-advertising that a promotion typically requires.
And if the answer is “no, the money won’t change your daily happiness” then you’ve just saved yourself some heartbreak. It’s time to focus on what is already making you happy.
Sadly, most of us need more convincing, so let’s consider what the economists call the “hedonic treadmill” where people become adjusted to their newfound salaries and are no longer happier with their increase. I think that this reflects a human being’s incredible ability to adjust to anything. When that happens, mindfulness/Buddhism can teach us tried and true solutions like the aforementioned gratitude-journaling or meditating to get back in touch with your body. I must admit that a 15-minute walk where I focus on breathing is enough to remind myself that I am already happy. Don’t let yourself get pulled on the hedonic treadmill– you can stop anytime. Before you reach for the next rung of the ladder, remember to pause, breathe, and know that there is no need to climb faster than you would like. If you hang out long enough, you may recognize how beautiful the view is from exactly where you are.
But what about you-- do these techniques feel like giving up? Or do they provide you with the freedom to focus on what really matters?