Why Smart Doesn’t Make You Happy

Tess graduation 2013-0035

It is time to get crafty. Job crafting, that is.

If you have been following along with my journey for the past year, you know that I have been on a happiness hunt. For those of you just joining (welcome!), here is the recap:

I had it all. An undergraduate degree, supportive family, respectable job, and boyfriend of three-years. But I wasn’t happy. No matter what changed – new car, a promotion at work, supporting my boyfriend as he bought a house – I felt unfulfilled. So I decided to redefine my happiness, because what I was doing clearly wasn’t working.

So in September of 2015, I did something crazy…I quit my high-paying job, left my life in Sacramento, and moved back into my parents’ house in Los Angeles.


I ended up taking a year off. I traveled to 8 countries, 7 states, and all up and down the California coast. I became closer to my family, read a ton of books (and reviewed them all on this blog), jumped out of an airplane, met an amazing guy, applied to graduate school, and discovered a whole lot about myself.

During this happiness hunt, I realized something very quickly: money isn’t happiness.

So, that brings me to today’s post, a discussion of the key to happiness. In a Management class for my MBA program at the University of Oregon, we read an article by The Atlantic, Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happy. It struck a cord with me and I wanted to talk about a few specific parts of it today.

There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.

A happiness recipe?! Where was this when I was on my happiness hunt all last year?! Well, even though I just came across this article now, I definitely believe it holds true. The relationships I built up with my parents, aunts, cousins, and cousin’s kiddos has brought me so much happiness. During my step back I became pretty good at blogging, relaxing (quite the feat for busy-body me) and spent a lot of time saying Yes. By doing something so deviant of society’s standards in quitting my job, I stopped caring what other people thought of my actions all around. Suddenly, the world was my oyster and I did things for myself, not for anyone else. With that, I found happiness.

But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.

Well, I didn’t need an article to tell me that! Despite a great paycheck with Target and a reputable education, I was not happy. And here is why, according to Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business:

So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that’s not a very sustainable source of happiness.

Honestly, for me it wasn’t so much that my pay wasn’t high enough – Target was great about letting executive employees interview for pay grade increases each year – it was that my work wasn’t fulfilling. So I quit my job and moved back home with mom and dad and took a year to think about what makes me happy, and then used that knowledge to guide my next career step. But quitting a job and moving back home with mommy and daddy isn’t a viable option for most people. Here is what Raghunathan recommends instead:

An alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.

Do what you love and the money will follow. Hearing this always makes me feel a little less anxious. But we don’t always know exactly what we love to do in a professional context; and if we do, it isn’t always feasible to make a quick living doing it. So one option is to change the framing of your current job. Instead of hating on it constantly, see what you can do to craft your job into something more meaningful. First, start by shifting your outlook from negative to positive.

On the one hand, we are hard-wired to focus more on negative things. But at the same time, we are also all hard-wired to be seeking a sense of happiness and the desire to flourish, and to be the best we can be. Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis…One experiment [Raghunathan] talked about in the book found that workers who received a daily email to remind them to make decisions that maximize happiness reported being markedly happier than those who didn’t get the email.

OK, so it probably isn’t as simple as an email, but that is an easy place to start. Really think about how you can maximize your happiness at your current job – and once you have an idea how, talk to your boss! Maybe you need more challenging assignments, more vacation time, or to work on a different team. The point is employees are beginning to demand jobs that makes them happy, and employers are starting to listen.

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, talks about how what used to be used as motivators to employees—what he calls the carrots and sticks approach— are now being replaced by what he calls “Motivation 2.0,” which is more trying to figure out what is it that people are really passionate about. Google is a famous big company that tries to practice this, and Whole Foods is another.

But it isn’t a perfect situation yet, something that Raghunathan acknowledges when speaking about MBA students:

In business schools, I see that there’s a huge push towards corporate social responsibility and finding a passion, but at the same time, if you look at the kinds of people who get invited to come give keynote addresses, or what it is that we focus on to improve our BusinessWeek rankings, it’s things that are extrinsic. We invite people who made a million bucks, and we look at incoming MBA students and their outgoing salaries.

The problem here is that we aren’t looking at the person, it is that we are looking at the numbers attached to him or her. GPA, class ranking, post-graduation salaries. Recruiters, university Deans, and even directors of university career services are putting too much emphasis on the numbers. Yes, Big Data is awesome and can teach us tons. But the insights we gain are used to draw comparisons between students, and that is exactly the problem.
Comparison fosters competition, and competition allows people to believe that there can only be on clear winner.
Tess graduation 2013-0015

And that worldview can be characterized, just for simplicity, in one of two fashions: One extreme is a kind of scarcity-minded approach, that my win is going to come at somebody else’s loss, which makes you engage in social comparisons. And the other view is what I would call a more abundance-oriented approach, that there’s room for everybody to grow.

In order to change our framing, become better job crafters, and find more fulfillment at work, we have to believe there is room for everyone.

So take some time this week to analyze your likes and dislikes about your job. Really look for those intrinsics motivators, outside of money and status, to maximize the sustainability of your career happiness.  Once you uncover what those motivators are, do a little of that every day. And if you get stuck, don’t forget that a simple email can get you back on the track to maximizing happiness.


How do you foster career sustainability? Let us know below.


One thought on “Why Smart Doesn’t Make You Happy

  1. Pingback: The Freshman 15 – From Brown Eyes

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