Many of my clients think about choosing a career path in a bit of a vacuum, asking “what kind of work should I be doing?”. Let me suggest that, while there’s value in looking at career as a distinct category (others being relationships, health, family, hobbies, religion, etc,), there may be even greater value in taking a more holistic viewpoint, thinking of career as simply the largest (in terms of time devoted to it, but not necessarily the most important) part of one’s life “tapestry”. So a better question might be “what kind of work should I be doing that will allow me to maximize the overall fulfillment I feel in my life?”.

Jonathan Haidt, in his must-read book “The Happiness Hypothesis”, speaks to the essential importance of two elements in creating fulfillment (which he also calls “vital engagement”). To me, fulfillment, or vital engagement, is synonymous with “bliss” in the common phrase “follow your bliss”. Haidt defines vital engagement as “a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experiences of flow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance). Flow is what you feel when you are so engaged in an activity that you lose track of time; it could be anything from researching a topic of interest to shooting hoops to singing to tinkering with your car to gardening. Subjective significance is simply that whatever you’re doing matters to you (whether or not it matters to anyone else).

Let me apply the principle of vital engagement to the coaching/counseling I do. A lot of my clients find themselves “trapped” in work they have grown tired of, and stale in, because they feel the need to earn a certain salary to maintain a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. A critical question they need to answer is “Does the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed allow you to find enough vital engagement?” Having a beautiful home, and being able to afford certain luxuries, may have subjective significance, but if a significant amount of flow is missing from one’s life, dissatisfaction sets in.

I recommend looking at career EITHER as a means to find lots of vital engagement at work (which would be ideal) OR, barring that, as a place that will allow you at least some vital engagement while providing you with the opportunity and means to create more vital engagement in other areas of your life. So it might well be better to take a job at a not-for-profit association, doing work of subjective significance, earning $60,000 and working a 40 hour week, as opposed to a position in a corporation which might pay twice that much but which would involve work of little subjective significance and severely reduce the time available to pursue outside interests that could provide a good deal of vital engagement.

If you are a parent and have growing children at home you may take some exception to this way of looking at career. It may appear a bit self-centered, seemingly neglecting the importance of considering your kids’ future. After all, don’t you have a responsibility to give them as many opportunities as possible (which means living in a good neighborhood, and perhaps sending them to expensive schools)? I will delve into this in my next post.