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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

It's OK if What You Thought Would Make You Happy Didn't

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“I just don’t know what’s wrong with me,” my friend said, nervously shredding the drink jacket that came with her paper cup while we sat at the corner table in one of our favorite local coffee shops. We had agreed to meet for an hour or two so she could vent about various things that were stressing her out.

She was well into her second year as a social worker—a position she’d worked undeniably hard for. After her undergrad, a master’s degree, and countless internships, she was finally working in the field that she had dreamed about since she could remember.

“I have exactly what I wanted,” she said, neatly organizing the cardboard shreds she had piled on the table, “So, why do I still feel this unsettled? Aren’t I supposed to be happier now?”

I sighed and told her that I knew exactly how she felt. Honestly, it was a situation I found myself in more times than I cared to count. And, you know what? I’m willing to bet that you’ve been there a time or two as well.

Perhaps that’s why one particular quote from a recent interview that author, Gretchen Rubin, did with Alison Green, who runs the popular “Ask a Manager” site, stood out to me so much: “Sometimes the things that make us happy aren’t the things that we wish made us happy—whether it’s a particular romantic partner or the books we like to read or a specific career track.”

That’s so true, isn’t it? It’s so easy to build up these ideas of what should bring us joy based on the reputation we want to cultivate or the image we want to present to the rest of the world. But, here’s the danger in that: You often end up loving the idea way more than the reality.

When you eventually discover that particular thing doesn’t actually light a fire inside of you as you had originally anticipated? Well, there’s often a hefty amount of shame that comes with that—a sense of failure, despite the fact that you’re giving up something you never authentically enjoyed anyway (seriously, just ask me about the time I tried to convince myself that I love running).

And, that was exactly where my friend found herself: After investing tons of time, energy, and resources into her education, she thought her career path was emotionally taxing and not anything like she imagined. And, that discovery left her feeling burdened with guilt and confusion.

I wish I had Green’s advice to share with her then, because I find her message to be particularly encouraging. Not only are you allowed to try things and then determine that you don’t experience the sense of fulfillment or enthusiasm you were hoping for, but you’re also usually allowed to drop them like hot potatoes when you come to that conclusion.

Even further, becoming aware that something doesn’t bring you pleasure isn’t just an opportunity to let go of those things that don’t make you happy, but also to find the things that actually do.

“I’ve tried to really prioritize figuring out what brings me happiness—even if they’re things that aren’t entirely aligned with the self-image I want to have—and then try to arrange my life accordingly,” Green continues in the interview.

So, if you’ve currently found yourself stuck in a similar situation as my friend and feel like you’ve been duped by reality, take Green’s encouragement and run with it. Remember, while we all have to do things that aren’t totally joy-worthy every now and then (sorry!), life’s way too short to fill your days with stuff that only brings you down.

You have my permission: Let go of that urge to beat yourself up and instead turn your attention to figuring out what actually will bring you the level of enthusiasm and satisfaction that you know you deserve. Trust me, that’s far more productive than the alternative.

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