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Is happiness a wise career goal? There is growing evidence that our thirst to find happiness, especially during tough economic times, is actually bumming us out.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/11/2011 10:01:04 AM ET 2011-07-11T14:01:04

Finding career happiness seems to be what everyone wants these days.

The shelves in bookstores are lined with books on how to find career happiness, and an endless stream of life coaches are trying to help workers attain it. Twitter is rife with advice and corny quotes about finding job joy.

But is happiness a wise career goal? There is growing evidence that our thirst to find happiness, especially during tough economic times, is actually bumming us out.

Control your career happiness

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“People who are striving to pursue happiness have a need to maximize their happiness, and those people are the ones who actually feel less happy and more disappointed,” said June Gruber, one of the co-authors of a recently released study titled “A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good” published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

The obsessive preoccupation with being happy in your career lately may have a lot to do with the job dissatisfaction so many employees are feeling, she said.

Having a goal of happiness is very different from other, more tangible goals, according to the study:

“For instance, people who highly value academic achievement will be disappointed when they fall short of their high standards," Gruber wrote. But feeling disappointed doesn’t prevent you from continuing to pursue your academic goals, she pointed out.

In the case of pursuing happiness, however, feeling disappointment is “incompatible with achieving one’s goal.”

“This reasoning leads to the prediction that the more people strive for happiness, the more likely it is that they will become disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.”

Indeed, with all the happy hype today most of us say we’re not happy at work, according to a study by consulting firm Mercer released last month.

The unending quest for happiness may not just be a fruitless goal, but it can also be exhausting, said Srini Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.”

“Sometimes, a job may simply be a way of making money rather than a way to be happy, but there are always things that one can do to make the experience more pleasant,” he said. “The problem is, people are sometimes so burned out by the pursuit of happiness that they give up, and they sometimes hold themselves up to unrealistic expectations.”

Pillay, who is also an executive coach, said even the CEOs and executives he works with aren’t happy all the time, which he said could be unproductive.

“Most people who are successful,” he continued, “are realistic that happiness isn’t a constant feature of their lives.”

Story: Do you have a question about landing your first job?

“Anxiety is an everyday part of corporate America,” Pillay said. Therefore, he added, “learning to manage negative feelings is even more important than generating positive feeling.”

Focusing on finding career happiness all the time takes you out of the moment, according to Simon Rego, a psychologist and director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, and you invariably end up pushing what you want even further away.

“When we focus on the here and now,” he added, “the values I can attend to at the moment, we’re much more able to get in touch with that notion of ‘happy.’”

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Many people feel stuck today because the tough job market has made job mobility harder. Those who have work feel overworked, and that’s adding to an uptick in unhappiness, according to Elizabeth Gibson, director of the University of California San Diego’s Extension Career Transition and Development for Professionals Program.

“We’re seeing that from a lot of people who are afraid to leave jobs they have, unhappy about where they are,” she said.

The Internet has only made matters worse for some because job seekers can readily see a host of often-unattainable jobs on job boards that sound so much better than what they have.

“They are like squirrels and shiny objects,” she said.

Wanting to get out of a gig you hate makes sense, said Dian Griesel, co-founder of The Business School of Happiness and co-author of “TurboCharged.”

“When you find yourself working only for the paycheck you are wasting your time and talent, and eight hours might seem like a lifetime,” Griesel said. “You can try to rationalize the situation, but you can’t fool yourself at the primal gut level. You know the situation is bad.”

In the end it’s called work for a reason and it isn’t always fun, said Sue Thompson, a workplace consultant.

“It’s common for people to preach about finding joy in work,” she said, “and everyone seems to be striving for happiness in their careers, but it’s called work because something has to get done, and you may not always be treated wonderfully, or love what you do.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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