Professional Success, a source of happiness?

One of the most innovative elements of Seligman’s theory on Happiness is the reference to professional success as a source of growth and personal flourishing. All we have to do is look around: many people treat the professional realm as one of the most important, the main source of happiness (judging by the time and effort they invest in their careers).

As we delve deeper into this model, the subtleties within the concepts take on greater significance: What does professional success mean? Achieving a certain economic status or prestige? Being the best at our job? Having a profession we are passionate about that allows us to develop our full potential? Climbing the ladder to have more power?

Perhaps a bit of all these things. Although we would be overlooking a fundamental aspect: all of these entail a high degree of external dependence. If we have to wait for the perfect job to grow and mature (flourish) professionally, it will surely take many years to get there; many will never even find the ideal job for the qualities they possess. Or they will discover it, but will not make it due to excessive competition. And most likely they will not be the best, no matter how hard they work.

If happiness ultimately depends on oneself, how do we assimilate that with the fact that an essential aspect (the professional aspect) cannot always be controlled? It’s very simple: We cannot reduce the idea of “career success” to what society or sociology tends to call success. We tend toward self-sufficiency and not depending on anyone as the ideal formula for achieving our goals (the less dependent we are on other factors, in our mind, the more it depends on me to reach my goals). But at the same time we strive to project to those around us an image of success, triumph and fulfillment. We seek independence yet we constantly compare ourselves to others. Therein lies the anguish.

No one can be happy alone. The things we like are often external; the people we love are external to us. What lies within us, calling on us to exercise our freedom, is our answer, our interpretation of reality and what we have before us. And rarely will it match what we had planned. Fortunately, life’s reality is richer and more complex than any designs we could have possibly had for the future.

On May 21, 2005, a large group of students was graduating from Kenyon College, in Ohio. They wanted the commencement speech to be given by David Foster Wallace, a noted author in the United States. And Wallace did not disappoint: He opened with a metaphor about two young fish that cross paths with an older fish, who asks them, “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on, and eventually one asks the other, “What the hell is water?”

He chose this metaphor to illustrate how we can be oblivious to the most obvious things, which we take for granted, and that prevents us from a deeper understanding of reality. Wallace’s speech continues by “demystifying” the life that awaits the new graduates. Here is where becomes particularly relevant for our topic of discussion. In Wallace’s own words,

“The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration.”

He continues with a nice depiction of an average adult day, the routine, the frustrations, the monotony. And the question automatically arises: where is the happiness in this experience? For as exciting and wonderful as our professional challenges may be, we will likely have to cope with frustrations and routines that seem incompatible with our desires and what we are passionate about.

Ultimately, we realize that pinning our happiness on major objectives (which may or may not be reached, sooner or later) is ill-advised: What really matters to anyone is how to get through the monotony, failures, etc. These days, the promise of future happiness alone is not enough, unless we can learn to live happily as we go down the path that leads to it. Continuing with his speech, Wallace changes direction and describes what water is to him in these situations, and why it is so hard for us see it:

“The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.

“[…] If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.”

This is the Gordian knot, because based on how we think, we will gravitate toward one of two very different ways of living: the default setting leads us to be close-minded; openness to reality, paying attention to everything going on, makes it possible to enjoy openness even in routine, seemingly frustrating situations.

But what does this openness to reality have to do with professional flourishing? Everything. No matter how ambitious our goals may be, most likely the negative circumstances we observed before still abound: monotony, frustration, etc. If a person tends to go into default mode when these circumstances arise, not only will they not enjoy their path to success, but the journey itself will be much tougher. Conversely, someone with an open mind will learn to live in the here and now, and will know how to grow and take advantage of every situation — even those that (seemingly) do not help them reach their goal. But here’s the important part: all of this depends on our freedom; it is how each of us chooses to view our day-to-day reality, as Wallace keenly points out, laying out the issue for the following article:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

“That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”