If You Want to Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life …

I was happy this morning.

After stretching on my bedroom balcony as the sun came up, I made a pot of coffee and ambled to my writing studio above the garage. There, I put on a disc of Gregorian chants and began my daily work as a story writer, picking up the narrative thread I’d left yesterday and moving the action forward one sentence at a time. Three hours later, at nine o’clock, I had emended a thousand old words, written five hundred new ones, and felt good about what I had done.

It was still early … and yet I knew that if I did nothing else before bedtime, I’d accomplished something worthwhile. That thought made me happy.

It also fueled my energy systems. I came into the office charged and ready to tackle my next priority – writing this ETR essay on, coincidentally, the relationship between work and happiness.

Last week, I received two e-mails on this subject. The first, from an avid ETR reader, posed the question: “You have said in the past that happiness comes from work. Do you really believe it?”

The second one came from a colleague: “What do you do when the thing you are good at isn’t the thing that really turns you on?”

Let’s start with some simple observations:

There’s a difference between happiness and pleasure.

Pleasure is personal and temporary; happiness is inclusive and enduring.

If you make pleasure your goal, you’ll eventually sacrifice happiness.

If you make happiness your goal, you won’t get that either.

Did you get all that? Good. Now let me try to answer both of those questions.

Do I really believe that happiness comes from working? Yes – but only from a certain kind of working. You won’t experience happiness if you work at a job you hate or if you do poor work on a project you like. The feeling of happiness I had this morning – the kind that is good while you are working and gives you energy when you stop – comes only when:

1. You believe your work is meaningful.

And …

2. You work at a relatively high level of competency.

If either of these two conditions is absent, the work won’t make you happy. If you don’t believe that your work is valuable, you won’t feel good about it … even if you do it well. And if you value what you do but do it poorly, you will be frustrated and upset.

To have that great feeling I had this morning, both factors must be in place: caring about what you do and doing what you care about well.

I’m not the only one who has noticed the relationship between work and happiness. All sorts of smart and successful people, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flagler, Warren Buffett, and Albert Einstein have commented on this connection. And a new study, conducted by a Swedish university, concluded that, over the long run, “people who work hard get the most joy.”

Dr Bruelde, head of the Swedish study, told the BBC that most people imagine that happiness comes from relaxing on the beach. “But if you do it for too long, our study shows, it stops being satisfying.”

Of the hundreds of people interviewed for the study, some mentioned family, friends, and church as factors in personal happiness. But the majority cited “work that takes advantage of one’s strengths and allows one to work toward a goal.”

In Message #1374 Brian Tracy echoed these ideas. He said that to be happy in life you must work at something “you have a natural gift for.” Only when you focus your energies on “unlocking your true potential,” he said, “will you be able to claim your ultimate birthright: happiness.”

Tracy’s advice for a happy life is to “dedicate yourself to the development of your natural talents and abilities by doing what you love to do and continuing to do it better and better.”

I hardly ever disagree with Brian Tracy, but in this case we have a slightly different view of things. I agree that if you have natural talents it sometimes makes good sense to develop them – but it doesn’t follow that in developing them you will wind up any happier. Our history is riddled with stories of individuals who developed their natural talents to genius levels and yet never achieved even a modicum of happiness. (Think Van Gogh or Anne Sexton or Kurt Cobain.)

Which brings us back to that second question: “What do you do if the thing you do well is not the thing you love?”

One answer – the one that Brian Tracy might give – is to quit what you are doing and devote your heart and soul to the thing you love. But if my colleague did this, I am not sure he would be happy. What would probably happen is this: He would quickly fall into debt – which he wouldn’t like at all. And he’d spend a lot of time being unhappy at the work that he was sure would make him happy.


Remember what I said above: To be happy at your work, you not only need to be doing something you care about, you also need to be good at what you are doing. And at this point, my colleague would be only sporadically good at his work because it would be new to him.

It would actually be easier for him to find happiness by discovering the value in what he already does well. That way, he could have his cake and eat it too. He could make a great living by being good at something he cares about.

We want to be happy all of the time. And sometimes, when we are temporarily unhappy, we want to make a change so that we will never be unhappy again. “If only things were different,” we tell ourselves …

“If only I had another job.”

“If only I made more money.”

“If only I didn’t have to work so many hours.”

“If only I could spend more time working outdoors”

… and so on.

The truth is, we are not designed to be perpetually happy. The natural pattern of life has its ups and downs, its ebbs and flows, its peaks and valleys. As Carl Jung said, “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

No, we can’t be happy all the time … but we can be happier than we are.

So how do we do that? Is there a way to be both happy at work and happy when we are not working? Here are a few things to think about:

1. Recognize the importance of being good at what you do.

When my mind is foggy and I can’t write a single good sentence, I am not happy – even though I’m doing something that matters to me. To be happier with my work, therefore, I have to become more skillful at it. If I accept the fact that it takes time to develop complex skills (1,000 hours for competence; 5,000 hours for mastery), I won’t be too upset with myself when I am having an awkward day.

2. Find the value in your talents.

“If you can’t be with the one you love,” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang, “love the one you’re with.” This is true of our work, too. So the advice I’d give my colleague (who makes his living as a financial analyst but secretly yearns to be an actor): You don’t have to give up your dream of acting – but if you spend some time trying to appreciate the importance of what you do (if it’s so meaningless, why are you so well paid?), you’ll be happier.

3. Don’t give up your day job.

Practice your passion on a part-time basis until you can make a good living at it. That’s what I’m doing with my fiction. And that’s what my colleague should be doing with his acting. Spend your evenings and weekends working on what you love – and if the day comes when you can quit your job and make a living from it, so much the better.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]