The 3 Reasons to Get a Life (Outside of Work)

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Sure, it’s important to be happy at work. But if we look to our jobs as our sole source of satisfaction and joy, we can end up very unhappy indeed. In this installment of the Happy at Work blog series, I share 3 reasons why getting a life outside of work can help you be more successful (and happier).

OK, I admit it. I am one of those people who will ask a stranger I’ve just met, “So, what do you do?” Maybe it’s because my formative professional years were spent in Washington, DC, where people tend to act like they’re walking resumes. (Part of what initially attracted me to my husband was that when I met him, in DC, he didn’t even mention his very interesting professional background — unlike so many of the guys I met in those days.)

My propensity to ask strangers about their work is probably also related to my deep interest in people’s careers. After all, I find the stuff so fascinating, that I became a career coach.

And yet, we are more, so much more, than our job titles or career paths or professions. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of defining ourselves that way – we derive our identity from our work, look to our jobs to fulfill or complete us, and ultimately, make us happy. I see this frequently with people working in international development or other “do-gooder” fields to which they are passionately committed.

Yes, I write (and talk and coach and train) a lot about how important it is to have work that we love. And how enjoying our work will not only make us happier, but more productive. But pinning all our hopes for happiness on our jobs is dangerous. Here are 3 reasons why:

First off, jobs come and go. Contracts end. The funder pulls the plug. We outgrow certain roles. We feel it’s time to move on. Our position is eliminated (or better, nationalized). Or maybe, for personal reasons such as caring for young children or following our partner to a post where we cannot work, we opt to take time out professionally. Whenever the ending or transition comes, it can hit us especially hard if our sense of well-being, happiness, and identity are all wrapped up in our work.

Second, piling all our expectations on any one relationship or single aspect of our lives is unwise — we are bound to be disappointed, or crush the relationship with the sheer weight of those expectations. (Think: needy girlfriend or boyfriend who looks to their partner to meet all of their needs. It’s a recipe for disaster.) My coaching client Viviana (not her real name) can attest to that. A self-confessed workaholic who truly enjoyed her work, she spent years logging long hours and thousands of business miles in her job. She was promoted to management, and was seen by peers and superiors as a star. Then her organization shifted, her job changed, and she was assigned a new boss, with whom she clashed. Suddenly, work became a source of misery instead of satisfaction. She told me that since her past commitment to work had crowded out other interests, hobbies, and relationships, she found that when work was unhappy, life was unhappy. There was no refuge to retreat to, because her work was her life.

Third, diverse interests and passions can actually make you more effective in your job. (Yep, being “well-rounded” isn’t just for college applications!) Knowing something about a topic outside the beaten path of your field can help you to bring a different perspective to your work. Plus, the mental and physical break from work can leave you fresher when you are on the job.

So. Enjoy your work. Optimize it to play to your strengths. Squeeze as much happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment as you can out of it. And get a life, forge an identity, and look to a source of joy and meaning, outside of your career.


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