A Little Happier: Justice O’Connor’s Three-Word Secret to Happiness.

I started my career in law, and back then, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court — certainly one of the highlights of my working life.

When I was writing my book The Happiness Project, I asked her, “What do you think is the secret of a happy life?” I was surprised by her answer, but as I thought about it, I’ve understood more and more what a good answer it is.

Do you agree that “Work worth doing” is a key to a happy life? What do you think that means, exactly? I suspect that Justice O’Connor takes a very broad view of what counts as “work” that’s worth doing.

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Happier listening!

  • Gillian

    Yes, I completely agree that worthwhile work is a key component of a happy life. Most of us want to feel useful, that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. And I agree with you, Gretchen, that this refers to work in the broadest context, not just a paid job. Many people find their paid job is quite useless and seek their satisfaction in other ways. Self esteem, and therefore happiness, comes from the sense that we are a worthwhile person contributing in some way, however small, to our society.

  • Ms. Liz Money Matters

    I LOVE this! And I love that you mention she likely meant it broadly. Your work worth doing can be raising children, having a rewarding career, your creative endeavors or anything else that is important to you. Our goal should be that everything we do is worth doing.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Mimi Gregor

    I’m glad that you extrapolated that she meant work in broad terms. Work that is worth doing can mean different things to different people. As long as you’re “being Gretchen” or “being Mimi” or whoever you are, the work that you find meaningful may be radically different than someone else’s interpretation of “work”. The important thing is that it makes you happier to do it, whether by nature of the work or by its results.

  • Elena

    Seems very correct at first glance, but is quite disputable. I stopped working at a relatively very young age. I am now officially retired, after waiting for 6 years. Retirement age is relatively much Iower in my country compared to U.S. I don’t have kids and I spent those years mainly doing things I love to do, like walking for hours on the coast, reading, visiting exhibitions, emjoying my big city and travelling. None of these is so professional or serious as to call them “meaningful work”. Yet I have been very very happy, making up for everything I could not do while I was working.It is a big discussion topic for many people around me who claim that you would become very bored, unhappy or useless if you did not work.
    Of course I don’t agree a bit.

    If you stopped writing somehow, and spent most of your days reading intensively, which I know you love, would that be work worth doing ? And would you be less happy ?

  • MaggieRose59

    I have to question her usage here. Does she mean work that is gratifying? Just exactly what work is not worth doing? I only know three basic reasons for work: Something just needs to be done (i.e. mow the lawn, wash the dishes, paint the house), something needs to be done and someone is going to pay you for it (i.e. drive a bus, flip burgers, nurse) or something you choose to do (i.e. work on your golf game, work on an art project). I believe all work is honorable, so those that think flipping burgers is not “worth doing” and would rather stay home and collect unemployment are the ones doing what is not worth doing, which is nothing!

    Sometimes we have to do work that is not pleasant in order to pay the bills. That does not make it not “worth doing”. If you happen to get to do something that is personally gratifying, that is a true blessing!

    • gretchenrubin

      I think one of the brilliant things about that phrase is that we can each decide for OURSELVES what it means.

  • Tricia Crockett

    This reminded me of the poem To Be of Use by Marge Piercy.