Meaning

Christinas_world_Lauren_Hammond_flickrWe’re happiest when we fill our lives with things that bring us pleasure and meaning. I recently wrote about things that bring me pleasure. Today, I spent some time thinking about what provides me with meaning, a sense of purpose to my life as a whole.

My career

I love working at a non-profit because I love doing mission-driven work. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not the type who “drinks the Kool-aid”, but I just derive so much satisfaction from feeling like my work might, in the smallest way, help make the world a better place. It’s also amazing to be on a team of people who are  passionate about those same goals.

I don’t think you have to work for a non-profit to feel that way. If anything, I think it’s more about finding the meaning in the job that you have, and focusing on that sense of purpose. I firmly believe that it’s possible to find a job you both like and derive meaning from.

Becoming a mother

At 30 weeks pregnant, I am already beginning to feel meaning from my soon-to-be role as a mother. It reminds me of when I used to have a garden; I’ve planted a seed and am now watching it grow, and soon it will become something real and tangible. I am excited and nervous to see where this journey takes us.

I do, however, feel it’s very important for my own happiness to continue to recognize myself during this transition, to pursue my hobbies, find fulfillment at work, and keep my relationship with my husband strong.

Volunteering

I used to volunteer regularly at The Marine Mammal Center. I was an education volunteer, which meant that I got to stand outside in the animal viewing area and tell people about the animals that they were seeing and answer any questions they had. I learned so much about marine mammals and about interpretation during my training, and it was so fun to learn again for learning’s sake.

I stopped volunteering there a while ago for various reasons — it’s really far from where I live, and they have so many volunteers there that it was hard to feel like I was adding value. I’d love to find a new place closer to home to volunteer once we settle into our new lives as parents a bit.

Do you volunteer? If so, I’d love to hear what kinds of things you do.

Teaching myself new skills

Whether it be learning Python programming from a textbook or training for a half marathon, there is absolutely nothing like the feeling I get from learning something new. It makes me feel capable and strong, in the best possible way. I’ve always been an independent person, and I love feeling like I can accomplish the things I set out to do.

Exercise

Exercise brings me both pleasure and a sense of purpose. I’ve always loved sports — gravitating toward volleyball and swimming when I was growing up. But as an adult I’ve found (to my surprise, honestly) that I also just enjoy “working out”, especially if I set myself goals like completing a half marathon. Again, it makes me feel capable, but it also gives me something to continually strive toward.

Being in nature

For me, it’s hard to not feel that there’s a grander purpose in this life when I’m surrounded by nature. It just feeds my soul in a way I can’t describe.

One life goal I have is to hike the Appalachian Trail. If you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, I highly recommend it. A hike like that can’t help but challenge you and change you, and I really hope that I can prioritize my life such that I make it happen someday.

I am also really excited to expose my child(ren) to the beautiful places outdoors. My parents took me and my sister to national parks all across the west growing up, and it was so formative for me. I hope I can provide my family with the wonder and joy I found in those experiences as a child.


As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been thinking more about what I want to achieve with this life. David Brooks recently discovered through an informal survey that “a surprising number of people found their purpose… by pursuing the small, happy life.” One reader said,

Everywhere, there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that, if explored, provide meaning.

Do you think that’s the trick, to change our perspective so that we actively look for meaning in everyday life, rather than seeking it out in big chunks at a time? What gives your life a sense of meaning?

(Photo credit: Lauren Hammond, Flickr)

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A job that’s just right

Telephone Switchboard Operators - a vintage circa 1914 photo

Almost two years ago, I chose happiness over my career.

I was five years into a job in environmental consulting, focused specifically on air quality. While I loved being in the environmental field, some elements of this job made me dread going into work.

Working long hours (for me)

We all have a natural happy working threshold, beyond which we don’t want to work. I was well past that point and feeling pressure to work longer hours still. I had trouble fitting in regular exercise, and I felt like my life was all work. Because I was not willing to put in the time that others on my team regularly devoted to this company, I started to feel like I wasn’t measuring up.

Working for the man

I worked for an expensive consulting firm, which meant the big companies hired us. Major refineries looking to obtain controversial permits to expand, large oil companies accused of causing oil spills leading to environmental and human health impacts, developers looking to permit the next giant skyscraper. I went into environmental engineering because I care about the environment, and I want to protect it. Instead, I found myself protecting big money interests.

Not finding meaning in my work

I derived no bigger purpose, no meaning from my job. At my most cynical, I felt like we were creating massive reports that no one would really ever read. It did not feel like a worthwhile pursuit, or a good use of money and brainpower. And beyond that, as a consultant I only got to see a small piece of the puzzle; I had no ownership over the larger picture.

Few opportunities to learn and grow

I learned a lot when I first started the job, but the learning curve eventually tapered off, and I eventually found myself executing rather than problem solving. I love to be challenged, and this job no longer gave me the opportunity to creatively use my brain or the knowledge I’d worked so hard to gain in college and grad school.


Looking back, after reading Happier, I can see that I was a part of the rat race, forgoing current pleasure for some vague idea of future meaning. He argues that we can have both.

What I desperately wanted was a job that —

  • I enjoyed and felt capable doing
  • Gave me a feeling of purpose
  • Allowed me to continue to grow and learn
  • Contributed to bettering the world, in whatever small way I could
  • Provided me with time to pursue other things that bring me happiness
  • Gave me feedback through the appreciation of others

Two years ago this August, I took a job at a nonprofit focused on conservation and the environment. At the time, it felt like walking out on a ledge because the position was initially temporary with only the possibility — not guarantee — of its becoming a permanent position. I took a major pay cut and, for that temporary period, gave up benefits.

I could not have made a better decision for me.

I feel so fortunate with how well things have turned out, but I also truly feel that things have a way of working out for the best. My job gives me all of what I was looking for and more. I enjoy my work, continue to grow, find meaning in what I do, and have time for exercise and other hobbies (like blogging!).

I knew that there would be things I would miss about my old job, and I was curious to find out what those were. The first was respect — I had to earn that all over again. I also missed my colleagues, but we have stayed friends and I’ve made new friends at my current job. Again, things have a way of working out.

Though I am absolutely happier, I’ve sometimes wondered if I made the right choice. Practically speaking, we live in a very expensive city, and I make a lot less money than before. But as the author of Happier stressed, money is not the ultimate currency. Happiness is. Money is only useful to the extent that it can enable you to get more happiness. And I am happier. Isn’t that what we’re all after?

(Of course, it’s worth stepping back to recognize and appreciate that we live in a time when many of us can think about such considerations when choosing a job. This is something I am very grateful for.)

Have you made a big career change? Are you considering one? How was your experience? How have you decided to balance money versus enjoyment when choosing your jobs? I would truly love to hear.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Royce Bair)

Feeling grateful Friday

Grandpas_friends_freeparking_flickr

A great way to bump up our happiness levels is to get in the habit of regularly writing down what we’re grateful for. So, I’d love to start a Friday tradition of writing about 5 things that made or make me grateful. But first, a few links that caught my eye this week:


1. I’m grateful that our ultrasound yesterday showed that the baby is doing well. A couple of possible complications spotted early on have resolved themselves. It’s a good reminder that sometimes all we need is a little time.

2. I’m grateful to have such thoughtful and sweet coworkers, who surprised me yesterday with a cute card and generous gift for our new baby.

3. I’m grateful that I got to catch up with my best friends from growing up this past week in Boulder, while celebrating the marriage of one of them to a great guy.

4. I’m grateful that my mom, sister, and oldest niece are coming out to visit for a long weekend in late June.

5. I’m grateful that I have a good friend who just moved two blocks away; it’s so nice to have someone who can just drop by, or who we can easily catch up with on weeknights.

Side note: it’s interesting to observe that 4 of the items on this week’s list are possible because of the people in my life!

(Photo credit: Flickr user freeparking :-|)