Global pandemic. Shaken job market and economy. Racial injustice. Let’s throw in an insurrection for good measure.
A time such as this that can jolt us from comfort zones and shift our priorities – ready or not. It’s left few of us without some sort of health or financial or professional or psychological uncertainty.
When we come out of this, there is some good news:
Psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi have long-studied the impact of trauma and adversity. They’ve found that living through tough, adverse periods is what builds strength and resiliency.
No doubt we’ll be better equipped for COVID-28.
Not only do difficult times make us stronger, experiencing them can also inspire and create a sense of new possibilities or opportunities that had not existed, or been recognized, before the downturn.
It’s possible that buried in this mess somewhere lies an opportunity to reevaluate what we spend our increasingly valuable days doing.
Work satisfaction determines life satisfaction
In 2018, the average full-time working American spent over 250 more hours working a year than other, high-income developed nations.
With so much time devoted to our jobs and careers, it should be no surprise that decades of studies affirm the important link between work satisfaction and our quality of life: the happier we are at work, the happier we are in life.
“There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela
When I grow up, I want to be … actively disengaged?
One measure of job satisfaction is how actively we’re engaged in what we do while at work.
In May 2020, a Gallup poll showed engagement of U.S. workers at a 20-year high at 38% - just as the pandemic was settling in. A month later, that figure dropped to 31%.
Less than a third of workers surveyed consider themselves “highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace”. The majority they found, do the minimum required to get a paycheck, are not psychologically attached nor passionate about their work and are quick to jump-ship if something better comes along.
A full 14% of workers, according to Gallup, are ‘actively disengaged’. This includes those miserable people who actively hate their jobs and have no compunction about taking everyone else down with them.
All in all, that’s a whole lot of people that dislike what they spending most of their lives doing.
Life is short; miserable workdays are long
Something about life and death can force a focus on what matters.
The health crisis of a pandemic can serve to illuminate the true preciousness of the hours we take for granted as we clock in for another unengaged, unfulfilled day.
“You may get to the very top of the ladder, and then find it has not been leaning against the right wall.” - Allen Raine
For many, our career makes up a core facet of our identity with our self-worth tied up in what we do.
We pursue, and our success is easily and superficially gauged by income levels, status and titles. The problem comes in when all this success doesn’t also translate into life satisfaction or quality.
A 2010 Princeton study confirms that income does impact happiness. Shocker: life is better with money. But that only works up to about $75,000/yr. They found that income beyond that level did not further increase happiness.
Looking beyond traditional metrics of success can free us up to change what success looks like. Paul Jarvis, author of Company of One (2019), challenges the default assumptions about success and that everyone must always want more.
It’s actually possible to want and need less in order to sustain a freer, more contented life. Success can also mean smaller, calmer, more fulfilling.
Implausibly, it can mean ... just enough.
“True happiness…is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” – Helen Keller
Shift in focus / encore movement
According to psychologist Erik H. Erikson, there’s a shift that can happen during midlife.
After building career success, professional stature and accumulating wealth; after raising a family, buying that house - priorities and motivations can change. Erikson suggests a move from focusing on self to instead investing time and energies outward with the desire to give back or to leave something behind.
People transitioning out of full-time careers are partnering to fuel the “encore movement”. They rightfully see themselves as valuable, experienced resources now dedicated to social good and helping younger generations.
While they may think this is about helping others, they themselves are also benefitting greatly. Studies show that finding purpose in something, inside or outside the workplace, is one of the most important things we can do for our own mental and physical health.
“Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Improve your mental & physical health with purpose
Pursuing meaning in life has been strongly correlated, over and over, with better physical and psychological wellbeing in aging adults.
In his book, Life on Purpose (2016), behavioral scientist Victor Strecher of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, outlines the mounting scientific evidence of the positive personal impact of having purpose.
Research shows that people that view their lives as purposeful, as aligned with their goals and values, and are a part of something bigger than themselves are more likely to stay healthy as they age.
Compared with people who feel little purpose in life, people with purpose have been shown to be less vulnerable to viruses and health conditions like diabetes or cancer. A study by Kim et al. (2013) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor found a link between purpose and a lower risk of stroke.
“It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.” – Winston Churchill
Purpose and mortality
A meta-analysis of ten studies by Cohen et al. (2015) found a significant connection between having a higher purpose in life and a reduced risk of dying by all causes as well as a decreased risk of heart attack.
Another study by researchers from University College London (UCL), Princeton University and Stony Brook University (2014) tracked the effects of purpose and wellbeing on longevity of about nine thousand retirement-aged people. During the approximate eight-year follow-up, those with greater wellbeing and purpose in life were a full 30% less likely to die than others.
Having purpose gives you a reason to stick around.
Purpose and the brain
Researchers at Rush University’s Memory and Aging Project tested the cognition and also posthumous brains of almost 250 older study participants. They found that people with higher levels of purpose in their lives had lower levels of cognitive decline.
A third of people whose brains, upon autopsy, displayed the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s Disease never exhibited memory loss or intellectual impairment. In this way, purpose is thought to create a reserve and protect the brain from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s.
A shift means action, learning and discomfort
We are working into later life more than ever before. To align all those working hours with something meaningful that will also keep our body and brain healthy, may require a career shift.
It may require exploration, experimentation and learning challenging new things. Or stepping into the unknown. Little about the pursuit is comfortable.
Know what’s more uncomfortable and doesn’t go away?
Writing for the Harvard Business Review in 2012, Daniel Gulati outlined five main regrets he found in interviewing a varied group of 28- to 58-year-olds about their careers. Whether they were immensely successful or just the opposite, and regardless of age, the main regrets were the same.
The #1 biggest regret: pursuing highly-paid yet unsatisfying career paths.
Gulati found that almost across-the-board, of those that made a change to pursue a passion, they wished they had made the leap earlier. He found that tenure was a key reason many stay in positions when they would rather not.
He found that people regretted lacking the confidence and wherewithal to be entrepreneurs and launch a business. They look back and also wish they were better able to parlay their college experience into a more fulfilling career path.
Finally, those interviewed regretted past opportunities they failed to recognize or take action upon. Davidai & Gilovich (2018) found that some of the longest-lasting regrets stem not from mistakes or failed attempts, but rather from not having taken action at all.
That’s no way to live
There’s still time. Research has shown the value of temporal landmarks like the start of a new year – yes, even this new year – in powering a fresh start.
It’s a psychological break from the past, a possibility to dismiss these and other future regrets. It offers possibility of something new and better. It offers a fresh start to seize the life that we have left.