Why You Don’t Want A Job That (Only) Makes You Happy

The healthiest people aren’t after happiness, science suggests–they’re making meaning.

Why You Don’t Want A Job That (Only) Makes You Happy

We’ve made claims about how the happiest people have the hardest jobs. But it turns out that happiness may be a little overrated–or even unhealthy.


As Emily Esfahani Smith writes in the Atlantic, meaning may be better for you.

How so? First, let’s define our terms:

Happiness is associated with taking from people, while meaning is associated with giving to people, according to a Journal of Positive Psychology study. As we’ve noted before, giving is an investment in long-term success.

So in a weird way, happiness can be a little superficial. Smith explains:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of the study wrote. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.” While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, “Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.”

To put it into business language, happiness feels like short-term profits, while meaning is more like long-term growth.

And your genes feel it, too

The state of your mind affects the state of your body–and they way your body prepares for the future. One example is how a mindfulness meditation or yoga practice, for instance, encourages your genes to express themselves in a less tense and more social way–thus staving off inflammatory diseases.

The amount of happiness or the amount of meaning that you feel in your life has parallel effects on gene expression. How does that work? A new study by University of North Carolina positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and UCLA genetics researcher Steve Cole helps us see why.


When we’re undergoing lots of stress, like bouts of loneliness, grief, or financial trouble, our bodies go into “threat mode,” as Smith reports. Interestingly, this fires up your pro-inflammatory genes and gets you ready to fight infections.

Why all the genomic fuss?

“You have a forward-looking immune system,” Fredrickson told Smith, “if you have a long track record of adversity, it prepares you for bacterial infections. For our ancestors, loneliness and adversity were associated with bacterial infections from wounds with predators and fights with conspecifics.”

But if you’re feeling okay and have social connections, Smith reports, you prepare for viruses, which you might run into with all those people you’re interacting with.

Fascinatingly, people who feel happy all the time–but don’t have a sense of meaning in their lives–have the same patterns of people with difficult lives.

Smith, again, explains:


Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives–proverbially, simply here for the party–have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.

“Empty positive emotions”–like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs–”are about as good for you for as adversity,” says Fredrickson.

What does this have to do with work?

As we’ve argued before, we have a slightly stunted career vocabulary as a culture: As Cal Newport recently lamented, the only options for elitely educated students seems to be:

  • making buckets of money in finance or consulting,
  • saving the world at nonprofits,
  • and for West Coasters, starting a tech company

This, the So Good They Can’t Ignore You author says, is symptomatic of the unrigorous, unnuanced, and thoroughly naive discussion we’re having around what makes our working lives work for us.

“What we need,” he contends, “is more career conversations, started much earlier, handled with significantly more subtlety and intelligence than most 19 year-olds, or the career advice industry that caters to them, seem willing to pursue.”

Understanding the difference between happiness and meaning lends us a richer, more subtle vocabulary, which allows us to be more specific in describing our goals to ourselves–a productivity secret for getting a 30-minute task done or a 30-year goal accomplished.

In that spirit of articulation, let’s revise our previous claim: It’s not that the people with the hardest, most other-centric jobs are the happiest. They just have the most meaning.

Hat tip: The Atlantic


[Image: Flickr user Rares Dutu]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.