The Secret to Happiness, in Three Words, According to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

I had the chance to make a quick visit to my hometown of Kansas City yesterday. There was an event at which Justice O’Connor was interviewed, along with two of her clerks — one of whom was me.

As always, I was so happy to see the Justice, and I was reminded of a conversation we had a few years ago, about happiness, so I decided to re-post this account.

**

Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – which was one of those rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime work experiences. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

The other day, I was on the phone with the Justice. We were talking about her terrific new site, iCivics, which teaches children about civics, and she’d also visited my website.

“I can tell you what I believe is the secret to a happy life,” she said.

“What’s that, Justice?” I asked. (Sidenote: when you speak directly to a Justice, you address him or her as “Justice” – e.g., “Justice, the cert petitions are here.” This, I always thought, must act as a frequent reminder to them about the value they are supposed to embody!) “What’s your secret?”

Work worth doing,” she answered firmly.

“What about relationships?” I asked. From what I can tell, looking at modern science and ancient philosophy, if you had to pick a single factor as the one most likely to lead to a happy life, having strong relationships would be a strong candidate. Of course, most people form a lot of strong relationships at work.

“No,” she said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said.

Work worth doing. What do you think? Is that the one thing you need for a happy life?

**

The more I’ve thought about “work worth doing,” the more I realize the brilliance of this three-word encapsulation. Because, of course, “work” can mean so many different things, to different people; and for us to do work that’s “worth doing” means that we must choose work that reflects our values. If you feel that your work is pointless, well, that’s not good. And most of us have many kinds of work: work-work, and relationships-work, and self-work, for instance.

Agree, disagree?

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  • fclark

    Yes! I agree. Relationships, health, employment, vacations…it’s all work worth doing!

  • Caroline Galanty

    I like the rhythm of the 3 words, but the meaning, I think, has to be larger — such as, “Be involved with something bigger than yourself”. This is what connects you to humanity, and to your humanity. This is “giving back”. But if you limit the meaning to big-impact professional jobs, well, that eliminates an awful lot of people from happiness eligibility. There’s always that story — I believe you’ve referred to it — of the 3 brick makers, who, when asked what they were doing, said respectively, “I’m making bricks”, “I’m helping build a cathedral”, and “I’m building a house for God!”..
    Finally, this reminds me of something a friend once said that remains dear to my heart: “All you really need in life is three things: Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for…” The Justice’s comment comes under, “Something to do…”
    Love you, Gretchen — you of all people are doing “Work worth doing…”
    – Caroline G Culver City, CA

  • Melissa J

    So enjoyed your talk yesterday. I think the Justice is spot on. That nugget of wisdom is going to stay with me for a long time. Thanks.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! Thanks so much.

  • Mcarter

    I agree. But I think some people confuse work worth doing with work-obsession and they become completely unbalanced in their lives. They don’t take time with their kids, for example. They can’t take a vacation and really unplug. Too much of anything becomes a bad thing.

  • Agree! The funny thing is we are all working towards retirement but really the work is the satisfying part. As long as the work has meaning for the individual.

  • lisa_mcelroy

    Justice O’Connor told me, when my first daughter was born, that being a mother would change my life in wonderful ways, forever. It fits perfectly. I’m a lawyer, and a law prof, and a writer, but being a mother? That’s the epitome of “work worth doing.”

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Agree. We are not all fortunate in our relationships, sometimes not by any means through our own fault. Besides, putting ‘relationships’ first can often be a means of distorting our selves AND those relationships.
    The most basic work worth doing, of course, is becoming the best person we can be–which includes relationship with family, friends, perhaps a significant other and children, and the world. ‘Be Gretchen’ is one of your primary commandments–and that is surely most worthwhile. The Daily Office in a Monastery or Convent is called Opus Dei (the work of God). Thus, worthwhile work can be everything from contemplation to digging in the earth.
    I have noticed in my own life that when I am mentally and emotionally healthy, I am nearly ALWAYS engaged in ‘making’ something-a quilt, writing, a meal. Some people cultivate a beautiful garden. Some find their jobs / careers offer the satisfaction of work worth doing. I greatly enjoyed my career, and for the most part found the work ‘worth doing.’ However, it was never quite as satisfying as the kinds of work I am now able to choose now that I am retired.
    I believe I could still have work worth doing if I had almost nothing else in life, which is another aspect of what Justice O’Connor reaches with this three-word-definition of what is truly needful. I notice that as my Mother slips further and further into her age (she is near 90) her ability to come up with ‘work worth doing’ that makes her feel satisfied with her day is sliding away from her along with her eyesight and her energy and her mental acuity.
    I have actually been considering lately that I need to start installing a strong habit of meditation that requires no more of me than that I sit still and be as mindful as possible. One day this may be required of me, and I don’t want to be lost when the time comes. That, too, is work worth doing.

    • Judy

      This makes me think of the scripture – The work of God is to believe in whom He sent.- It makes us stop and meditate on what is “work”. You make lots of good points.

  • MJ

    Gretchen, did she elaborate at all? This is fascinating. I think your interpretation is interesting, but when you asked about relationships she replied “no,” so saying “relationship work” seems like a compromise she didn’t intend. More than anything, I want to understand what she truly meant, and you know her. Thanks.

  • PLD

    Work worth doing. I completely agree. I have been struggling lately on whether I should put off the plans I’ve made to further invest myself into making my “hobby job” a real job – which to me is “work worth doing” – or fix/end/find another relationship that would make me happier. I’ve thought about this for months on end at this point and I came to the conclusion Easter Sunday – the answer is work worth doing. What is more important than that? That to me is the key – when your are happy with what you do, all the rest falls into place. Relationships will mend or end and if so a new one will come in its own time as your happiness as a whole person escalates. And by the way, work worth doing is not really “work” at all. 🙂

  • phoenix1920

    Justice O’Connor was the person who inspired me to go to law school. She has an interesting perspective. But I like your approach, with lots of tools, instead of relying on one piece of advice for all people.

    For me, while work worth doing does bring happiness, it also brings guilt. The more important of a case I work on, the harder it if for me to leave my office. Likewise, I feel similar pulls to go home when my children need me. But this means when both are pulling on me, I leave my own needs behind, which has a tremendous effect on my happiness–and often can lead to despair when you feel you didn’t do your best on both competing needs.

  • Nichole Persing

    I think relationships qualify as “work” worth doing.

  • I prefer ‘work that makes you happy”. That’s five words, but for me more to the point. It’s got to feel good. Of course, if it’s ‘worth doing’ to you, it’s probably making you happy.

  • Florida Reader

    As Freud stated “To love and to work.” So Justice O’Connor is trying to boil it down to one, but I doubt it can be done.

  • Jennie Wong

    Yes, I agree with the Justice completely. And I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels work is the proper thing to put at the center of one’s life. Most importantly, I think it reveals the false line between work and play.

  • Randee Bulla

    I believe all of us want to have a purpose for being here, and work worth doing is a great purpose. I know I was miserable until I found a job that gave me a small cog in a big wheel of helping people. Without that grounding sense of why you are here, it is difficult to build on happiness.

  • Mrsbkind

    Totally agree, I love the work I do. I would say, it’s my dream job. It’s hard work to be a wife and homeschool mom. But I love it!

  • Gretchen2

    I think “work worth doing” also becomes just that because of the relationships that we build through our work. In this sense, it is not one or the other, but the fact that fulfilling work often puts us in touch with people whom we share similar interests. That being said, it is also helpful to remember one of the Happiness Project’s main “findings”: what makes me happy is going to be different than what makes someone else happy and vice versa! At the end of a successful and satisfying career, we also tend to be quite biased about what makes us happy – afterall, we dedicated our lives to that persuit and we cannot change that now. This is only human. I have to compare what Justice Conner says about her most important source of happiness, which also happens to be one(!) of mine, with what I hear from my mother-in-law (who is about Justice Conner’s age). She constantly tells me how happy her life was a homemaker who was always there to take care of her children and her husband. I guess what I am trying to stress is that we are all different. What we have personally experienced and been successful at certainly biases our opinions of what makes US (not everyone else) happy!

  • dogbaker

    Work–is anything I invest my time and energy into.- whether it is cleaning house,knitting,volunteering,my marriage so yes I believe she nailed it.

  • Dragonfly UK

    I think it is work that is worth doing and allows you to be yourself. I am about to head off to my job working with children with special needs – definitely worth doing. But I don’t enjoy it because it doesn’t allow me to be myself and do what I am good at. I am constantly straining to be someone who I am not.

  • Oliver Paladin

    Three words? That’s easy. “Love the Lord”, written around 1400 BC by an inspired, wise philosopher.

  • Jim Searles

    I disagree. Perhaps her answer is why they say justice is blind.I admit that work worth doing is part of the equation,but I believe that someone to love and share your hopes and dreams with is the rest of the equation.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think that’s part of “work worth doing.” Because that takes work too.

      • Kira Blaski

        I’d have to disagree with you. She was specifically asked , “What about relationships” and said no, implying that the having of a relationship (and everything that goes with it, including the work) was not as important. Had she meant that, I believe she would have replied yes, the work of a relationship is important, if that’s the work you find worth doing.
        There are just some people that feel that their work is the most important thing in life; that what we leave for future generations and how we put our stamp on the world is what matters. I completely disagree with that sentiment as an overall statement. I believe it’s what you do with the time here that matters to the individual. If you’re a person who will arrive at the end of life with a wonderful family, but only wish you had made more of a lasting contribution to society, than your relationships weren’t what was important to you, and you’ll have regrets. What I think is the most important thing is simply to do the one thing (overall, obviously) that you would regret not having done, or having done more of, at the end of your life. It’ll be different for everyone, although the vast majority would probably lean to spending time with family, making solid connections with people, or having a profound impact on the world.

        • Jim Searles

          you have put into words exactly how I was thinking when I read the comment.Remember the quote “something to keep you busy,something to look forward to and someone to love” I am glad I am happier than most. That in it’s self is a blessing.

      • Jim Searles

        It is true that a relationship is a team effort, but I never thought of it as work. I suppose it could be contrued as work worth doing. You have given me something to ponder. Thanks

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I think that is true for you, but I also think that is not true for us all. I spent many years feeling that my life would be a FAILED life if I did not have a good relationship as the foundation for my life. That view and perception was like a black hole that sucked every good thing into it. When I finally reframed my idea to realize that I had all the ingredients for a ‘good enough life’ (primarily a ‘reason for being’ in my job, creative work and other aspects including family and friends to whom I knew that I was important but not ‘primary’ any more). THEN I did have a good enough life. And I became ready to accept something less than ideal as a good enough primary relationship that satisfied me too. I think the work is primary. If your reason for being depends totally on another, what if you lose the other? You have to have the work.

      • Jim Searles

        I have lost a loved one and now, although I have my work, I have a void that work isn’t filling. Perhaps, it is just one old man looking back at the good times and looking towards a happy future. Thank you for you insight.

        • Penelope Schmitt

          I am so sorry for your loss–to HAVE that precious relationship and lose it is terrible, and it takes as long as it takes to absorb and go forward. But I see that you are here on this site and thinking about WANTING to feel happy again. Gretchen has some pretty good posts back in the archives about what to do for yourself when you are in the middle of a crisis or have suffered a major loss. I wish you all the best, and I am betting you will get to a better place–because you want to!

  • Sasha Nowles

    When asked what the most important contributors to a satisfying life were, Sigmund Freud reportedly replied, “Liebe und Arbeit” (Love and work). By his standard, meaningful work and relationships are both essential.

    • gretchenrubin

      As a sidenote, as I recall, this quotation has never been authoritatively sourced to Freud.

  • Curt Rosengren

    I love the simplicity of this. And I think the power of leaving it at “work worth doing” without elaboration from anyone else is that it forces each person to ask, “What does ‘work worth doing’ mean to me?” The answer to that has a lot more impact than if you or I or Sandra Day O’Connor comes along and says, “This is what makes work worth doing. Do that.”

  • Caroline Donahue

    I agree with her. I agree that Justic O’Conner did not include relationships in the “work worth doing,” but I interpreted this differently.

    I do think that “Work Worth Doing” is the center of a happy life. When I have not felt that I had work worth doing, it has impacted my relationships negatively. And the opposite has also been true. When I am happy in my work and feel useful and that I spend my time on “work worth doing,” I am happier. This radiates out into my life and makes everything, including relationships better.

    I have been in good relationships without work worth doing and there was a void. When I am engaged in good work but not in a relationship, I have been sad, but I have felt a sense of community in that work.

    So I think she is right, but not because relationships aren’t important- more because pointless work or that lack of work can prevent us from being able to enjoy them and be our best selves with others.

  • It makes sense, properly interpreted. Work that matters can encompass career, volunteer work, or raising children, to give but a few examples. Work that matters is our life’s calling, of which we may have various forms at different points in our lives. It represents who we are at our core, and how we can have the most profound impact on the world– whether that’s being a justice, a mother, or a volunteer mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters. I happen to believe that relationships are also hugely influential on happiness and quality of life. However, there’s a certain danger in pinning one’s hopes for a happy life solely on relationships; in one’s work, one can express creativity and the values that make that person unique. In being a parent or a volunteer, one’s work is human development, which is how that person creates change in the world– not “just” being in relationship, although that relationship is of tremendous value.

  • marycorbet

    Work worth doing encompasses just about everything in life, including relationships, doesn’t it? Building relationships, keeping relationships, nurturing relationships – it’s something you have to work at. People who don’t work at their relationships (work at sacrificing, work at loving, giving, providing, work at helping, work at communicating…) are pretty much those who don’t have successful relationships. Work worth doing doesn’t have to be Big Work – it’s can be (and I’d venture to say, most often is) the little works we do every day, day in and day out, to make our lives and the lives of those we love, happy.

  • Eva

    I agree totally with Caroline – limiting ‘work’ to a narrow interpretation of what we do for pay would mean a lot of people have no hope of happiness – or our civilization would fall apart – since there are a lot of jobs that don’t seem very fulfilling but are very necessary. (The usual ‘garbage collector’, for example. From the view of society that is ‘work worth doing’ – but probably not something deliberately chosen by the individual. If you expand to Caroline’s definition, life can still hold happiness.)

  • Renia Carsillo

    Completely 100% agree. That work may be raising children or bridges or whatever, but I think it’s even more compelling than love.

  • Gillian

    I agree with Justice O’Connor. I believe that work worth doing, and doing it well, and whether paid or voluntary, contributes to making us whole. Relationships can’t make us whole – we can’t depend on others to do that. Only when we are whole can we then enjoy and nurture our relationships.

    Frances Mayes, author of “Under The Tuscan Sun” and other books about life in Tuscany, writes that “it is paradoxical but true that something that takes you out of yourself also restores you to yourself with a greater freedom. A passionate interest also has a true-north needle that keeps you focused.” I interpret a “passionate interest” as work worth doing.

    You too, Gretchen, state something similar when you refer to the need for an “atmosphere of growth”.

    Speaking of Frances Mayes, I would love to see you do an interview with her, Gretchen. She can provide insight about happiness from the point of view of a different culture. She is a wonderful writer. A couple of other relevant quotes:
    “The giving, the fun, and the spontaneity of everyday life here shock me and return me immediately to a munificent state of being that gradually starts to feel normal. I begin to notice here….. that my skin fits perfectly over my body, just as this house sits so serenely and naturally on this hillside.”
    “How do Italian friends naturally keep the jouissance they were born with? I’ve noticed that they don’t talk about priorities. They work but don’t become slaves…….work and play are happily still balanced, giving the chance not to just enjoy but to revel in everyday life.”

    I think that is perhaps the secret to happiness – work worth doing (a passion) and revelling in everyday life – as opposed to making/scheduling time for fun.

  • Amina Islam

    Hello. I read your first book and I have to admit it has really inspired me to work on changing my life and doing things that add more meaning to it. Personally, I’ve always thought about how people do need meaningful work to do even if they’re housewives. Otherwise, some women, especially in our society, tend to indulge in harmful gossip and their lives just seem idle, filled with social gatherings with people they don’t particularly like.

  • Marie

    I like it! Mine is a little “wordier”: Fine something you would die for, and live for it.

  • Lori

    Perhaps Sandra Day O’Connor is an introvert. An extravert would never be happy with her answer.

    • Gayle

      That is what I thought. As an introvert, I agree with her. But most extroverts would not be happy, I think, unless someone else was involved in that work with them.

  • This smells of elitist tripe. I get it if she means it in the sense of other cliches, like ‘attitude is everything’ or ‘purpose.’ And, I’m familiar with the research and tomes written lately about purpose and work.

    However, most of the world is nowhere near this level of self-actualization when it comes to work. Many are enslaved without much potential to change things (except in their heads). Ask prisoners if the work they’re doing on behalf of privately run prisons is worth doing. I won’t start.

    Maybe I’ve drifted from the topic, however. Maybe her point is that very few are actually happy, because very few are engaged in “work worth doing.”

    Lots of agreement here in the comments . . and I don’t mean to be trollish . . but this strikes me as very high, mighty and out-of-touch.

  • lulu

    totally agree with SDO….what is “worth” doing will differ for each, but our sense of this worth will permeate our whole way of being in the world….Next question: how to FIND work worth doing….?

  • me

    spread more joy

  • Elizabeth Allen-Pennebaker

    I agree with the Justice. I have a wonderful husband and a great family but I wasn’t really happy until I got my current job, which I love. Before that I had a job I hated and I had to fight all the time against depression. “Work worth doing” centers you and makes everything else fall into place. If you are not happy with your work, then you’ll be looking to the
    people with whom you have relationships to make you happy – a recipe for
    disaster.

    To the person below who felt that work should connect you to something outside yourself and greater than you – I completely agree and think this is inherent in the phrase “work worth doing”, though “worth doing” can mean anything from “saving the world” to “supporting your kids”. (So I guess in that sense the big-impact corporate job could apply, though I imagine that many people in their secret hearts question the ultimate meaning of those jobs. I think that’s one of the reasons they have to be paid so well.)

    • Lauren

      I am completely agree with you!..if we don´t feel comfortable in our work place or people (cowokers) we share with, it won´t be possible to do a work worth doing¨

      Which is why we all have to looking for what makes us happy!! (work, relationships, people, family, friends, etc)

  • ViVi

    Does the “worth” also mean getting paid for?..Doing meaningful work that you enjoy
    Is most certainly “work worth doing”..Oh if were that easy ….VH

  • Leslie H.

    Gretchen, thank you for reminding me about this! The Justice told us that as well, but I hadn’t thought about it for years and years. She also taught me that the petunias on my balcony in Arlington would bloom all winter if I took care of them. She meant it literally (and she was right), but I’ve always remembered it metaphorically as well. What an amazing year that was.

  • Patricia H., Shawnee, KS

    Remember that Justice O’Connor – in good health herself – resigned from the Supreme Court of the United States to return home to care for her invalid husband – apparently, to her, work *more* worth doing. “Work worth doing” seems to be a totally personal interpretation.

  • Holly’s Mom

    I think “work” can mean many things – cleaning up a river, gardening, creating art, practicing the piano, teaching a child. The point is to find something you are passionate about and devote yourself to it wholeheartedly. As Boomers retire, it’s interesting how many still stay engaged and active, versus sitting in the proverbial “rocking chair”. While I’ve been a full-time employee for 35 years, I’m looking forward to starting my “life’s work” once I no longer need to worry about a paycheck. I think that is the point Justice O’Connor was trying to make. An idle life with no purpose and no passion is an empty one indeed.

  • TiSaysStuff

    Why would there be one secret to happiness amongst a species as varied as humans? (I ask variants of this question about a lot of topics, including work, relationships, the afterlife or lack thereof, exercise, nutrition, child-rearing. I don’t understand why we think there are secretive Big Truths that can steer all people to their best life.)

  • Julie Weatherby

    Yes! With your inclusive definition of “work”, it is perfect.

  • Meg Clare

    I agree completely, anything worth doing is worth doing well and there is work of some sort, even the work of winning a card game, there is work attached to all of life. I see that as humans we are still trying to complicate it, but I read it the first time you sent it out and put it on a stickie that sits pasted on the kitchen wall still, where I can see it and ponder it often. Thank you for sharing the words of your friend, the Justice, with us. I’m glad you have her as a friend.

  • Penny Behm

    I couldn’t agree more. There is no depression like that of doing mindless, meaningless tasks for long periods of time every single day, that you know with a certainty is a complete waste of your mental and spiritual ability. Many, many precious years can be lost forever doing work of this kind, and in the end, you have nothing but heartache. If you know more, do whatever it takes to drop whatever you are doing and have been doing, and reach higher to a place of daily challenge and satisfaction. The greatest work that anyone can do, is lead someone to Jesus and to eternal life…and that doesn’t mean that you have to join a money-hungry church or become a pastor. It just means reaching out to the needy in word and deed and opening their eyes to the truth of salvation.

  • anonymous

    I completely agree with Justice O’Connor. A few months ago I resigned from a job which wasn’t worth doing. From the outside my life seemed perfect, but inside I felt a strong sense of regret that I’m wasting my time doing something I hated. The turning point came when I broke up with my girlfriend as a result of working too much. That’s when I decided enough is enough. Now I find myself doing a job that’s worth doing. I’ve even started skateboarding. And at the age of 27, I’m glad I learned the secret to happiness.
    Thank you for the interesting article.

  • I’m not sure I would limit the secret of happiness to meaningful work. You have got to have other vital components such as good health and nurturing relationships and friendships. But it’s definitely an important piece.