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Work, Satisfaction, and Happiness...and what stands in their way

Posted Aug 26 2008 4:29pm
Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology (see previous post ), takes up the question (in "Authentic Happiness") of what makes the same employment for one person utter drudgery, and for another, a passionate pursuit. It's a question that bears on those of you who struggle with depression and/or anxiety, not because finding the right job will be the cure-all, but because satisfying work is a prophylactic against wild moods. Working with these moods, in some ways, is like erecting breakwaters in a harbor: the waves don't stop, but by the time they roll in to your boat, they are relatively docile. Job choice is like one of the wave-tamers.

So what does Seligman say? From his and others' research, he makes a division between three types of employment:

1) Job: employment which is serves primarily to support your non-job life.

2) Career: employment which is enjoyable, but which is more about advancement and promotion than the work itself.

3) Calling: employment which in and of itself is satisfying and enjoyable, which is an integral part of the person's identity and sense of purpose in the world. This is work which is loved, and which is felt to make the world a better place.

The difference between a job or career and a calling is that a calling must engage your "signature strengths," those qualities which are most central to your character, to what you are good at doing, love to do, and which bring you deep satisfaction when deployed. A calling is work that repeatedly and routinely supply gratification because it calls on those most important strengths of yours. (Seligman has developed a free test of your signature strengths, which can be taken here . You'll need to create an account, but it and the other tests are free.)

It's a pretty simple idea, really: assess your signature strengths, and then choose work that fits those strengths, or take the job you're in and craft it to emphasize your strengths. So why, then, are so many people unsatisfied with their work?

One reason might be simple availability, that appropriate work is not available to you. Or your job will not bend or shift to accentuate your strengths. Or you don't know what your strengths are.

But what I've seen with depression and anxiety is that much more often it's not these "inhibitors" which are the trouble, but what is going on under the surface, in terms of a person's belief's about work and satisfaction. If there were nothing standing between knowing your strengths and acting on them, then voila! A calling! But what usually stands between is a belief that either "Life can't provide," or "I'm not worthy."

Beliefs, as I'm talking about them here, are not simple, neutral assessments, like "I believe it will rain today." That's probably more accurately stated as, "I think it will rain." If it doesn't, you shrug and go on.

The beliefs that are problematic are those that emphasize your self as the believer: I believe x. In other words, these beliefs are statements or axioms about your self , or your self in the world . Whether it rains or not, no big deal in terms of how you see yourself. But a conception of the nature of yourself and the world, that's a big deal.

We are wired as humans to maintain consistency in our sense of ourselves. Have you ever had a moment when you can't quite remember yourself clearly? It's most often disorienting and even scary, and these reactions point to a deep part of ourselves that wants to always know who and where we are. Beliefs are part of this way of "locating" ourselves.

Think of guards on a castle wall, who are charged with the defense of the castle. That's their sole and only job. They don't care what is actually inside the castle, and once something is let through the gate, it simply becomes part of "the castle," what they defend. A tyrant, or a town council, or a goat, or a pile of garbage--doesn't matter to the guards at all.

So too with beliefs. The guards which patrol around the perimeter of our selves will equally defend what's inside against challenges, regardless of whether the castle (our self) holds thoughts of "I'm lovable and worthy," or "I'm terrible and worthless and the world is dangerous." The guards always face outward.

Regarding work life, the way this applies is: safety most often trumps satisfaction, and safety means defending the self (the castle) against challenge. If your core belief is that you do not deserve a calling, and your boss comes to you asking, "How can we draw on your core strengths?" you're likely to, in subtle or not so subtle ways, resist the opportunity. While the longing is surely there to grow and be happy--this is also a genuine force in the psyche--the danger to the stability of the self often wins out. Outwardly, it's, "Great!" and inwardly, it's, "If I take the opportunity, become happier, then my core belief about myself is disproved, and then who am I?" Fear arises, which alerts the guards, and then the castle goes into lock down.

This is the great dilemma of the wild moods, that they often serve to defend the self, such that the direct path--here, matching strengths with work--can become quite twisted. (Not, however, to discount genetics or chemistry--there are many factors at work in moods.)

The great solutions to the great dilemma, I'll talk about in future posts, but for now, just paying attention to this need to defend beliefs can be opening. You can ask yourself what exactly these beliefs are for you, and how you are defending them at work (or home, relationships, etc.). Awareness of what is going on is the critical work in changing course and giving new orders to the guards up on your wall.

Because these guards are, ultimately, servants, important ones without whom your self would melt and blur or be taken over by others. But they can be retrained, and made to understood that the old, outdated threats are over and that certain experiences--like satisfaction at work--can now be let in without destroying the castle. Once they get a convincing briefing, they will happily go back to their posts and go about their same business, but the results for you are that they will allow through experiences that heretofore felt profoundly dangerous.

These guards--they're basically good folk, they just need some guidance.

(Resources: Positive Psychology Center website )
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