Through a mutual friend, I became acquinted with Alexandra Levit and her writing – she’s a career columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Much of her work focuses on helping people find and succeed in meaningful jobs. Her brand-new book (we have the same pub date!) is New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career. It’s a great resource for anyone who is figuring out whether, what, and how to change careers.
A career shift is one of the most difficult, and also most rewarding, changes a person can make in a happiness project. Of course, these days, it can seem like a luxury to like your job – it’s enough just to have a job — or GET one! But if you’re in the position of deciding what to do, or whether to make a change, finding work you love is one of the biggest happiness boosters out there.
I went through this kind of transition myself, when I left law to become a writer. It was very difficult, but it has been a key to my happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Alexandra: Going out to a good restaurant or a beautiful natural spot with friends. Even if I’m feeling down and don’t feel like leaving the house, the act of getting ready and forcing myself to be social inevitably perks me up.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I know now that happiness is internal, not external. I used to believe that if I did X, Y, and Z, then I would be happy. But I’ve realized that you can have an objectively outstanding life (someone to love, something to do, etc.) and still be miserable. It’s not what you do but what you think/how you feel about what you do that’s the important variable.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Yes. I often point out things in my life that could be better, or irrationally compare myself to other people. I hold myself to an extremely high standard and leave very little cushion room for when the ups and downs of life just happen.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
My favorite happiness book – besides Gretchen’s [awww, thanks Alexandra!] – is How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. It teaches us to take ownership of our thoughts and emotions and recognize that we have the power to control how we perceive situations. The wisdom is timeless.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
People around me seem to spend a great deal of time complaining without actually doing anything about an unpleasant situation. They also worry about things they can’t control or aren’t likely to happen. And I think that people don’t appreciate what they have, including their own success. Once one goal is met, they immediately move on to the next one without taking the time to celebrate the achievement.
Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
When I was a freshman in college, I was exceptionally unhappy. I was going through a lot in my personal life, and plus I think adolescent angst hit me a little late. It took me almost a year to get back on track. I think I was happiest in my late twenties, when I got married and found my passion career-wise. I consider myself to be pretty happy now, although I’m still getting used to being a parent and the tremendous emotions that come with it.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I absolutely work at it. I am a person who is prone to seeing the glass half empty, and I know this, so when I sense that my mood is getting low, I write down all of the things of consequence – positive and negative – that happened during a given week. Inevitably I’ll see that the list of positive things is much longer than the list of negative things, and it forces me to recognize that things are much better than I sometimes perceive them to be.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
One aspect of my life that has always surprised me in this respect is the business trip. I often dread trips involving an airplane and hotel room, but more times than not, my fondest memories of my work with a particular organization are made in the context of an off-site event. I think that I’m going to hate every minute, and then I end up having a blast!
* Over at RealDelia (“Finding yourself in adulthood”), Delia has an interesting post about a kind of happiness project: deciding that the only work she’ll pursue on Saturdays is to do yoga and read The New Yorker, to make sure those happiness-inducing activities don’t get pushed aside. I love it!