While writing my last blog, I started to contemplate why so many of us hold on to the mistaken idea that our job/career should be the area of our lives in which we live out our passion and do what we love. This led me to a deeper and perhaps more provocative question about the intersection between living a purposeful life and a happy one.
Personally, I’ve always believed that purpose and happiness should go hand-in-hand. If you feel like you’re living a purposeful and meaningful life, you should be happy, right?
Scientists have recently shown that happiness and meaning don’t always co-exist, and there are interesting differences between the two. For example, meaningfulness often involves experiencing a certain level of stress and challenge – which can make you feel less happy. When I decided to quit my corporate job to start my own wellness business, I was stressed to the max! I worried about paying my mortgage, I worried about what other people thought of my decision, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be successful. During the two and a half years that I was an entrepreneur, my life felt very meaningful – but I wasn’t always happy.
The same is true in my current role as a researcher at Harvard Medical School. I’m very passionate about the work that I do, and studying the beneficial effects of providing yoga in schools feels extremely meaningful. But I’m not always happy. There’s a lot of day-to-day grind behind the positive work that I’m doing. For example, I spend most of my days sitting at a desk writing papers and grant applications to try to fund my research. And Harvard is an extremely competitive environment where I’m constantly surrounded by people who are doing cutting-edge research – which causes me to make a lot of social comparisons that don’t always leave me feeling very confident.
I once heard someone say: “Be careful what you’re good at. You could end up doing it for the rest of your life.”
This quote has always stuck with me because it gets to the heart of a question that has plagued me for many years:
I know that I’m good at doing research. I wouldn’t be at Harvard if I wasn’t. But doing research also pushes all of my buttons in a way that can make me unhappy. For example:
- Sitting at a desk all day in a windowless office can feel soul-sucking.
- Constantly putting myself out there in the form of papers and grant applications, only to have these contributions rejected or unfunded (which is the norm!) can beat down my morale and make me feel insecure.
- The scientific method is very logical and analytical. I’ve trained this side of my brain to death and feel like I can come up with study designs, hypotheses, and theories in my sleep. The problem is that I don’t often get a chance to exercise the more right-brained aspects of my personality – things like creative writing, art, and being in the flow.
- Academia can be so competitive that long hours, overwork, and taking on too much are not only the norm – they are encouraged. I feel like I’m in a constant battle to leave work at a decent hour, eat healthy, get enough sleep, and not overfill my plate.
But look at the potential of the work that I’m doing. If my research is able to contribute to a growing body of evidence showing that providing yoga in schools can help students reduce stress, improve mood, enhance grades, etc., then I could be changing the lives of generations of children. This could have a tremendous impact on the entire world by producing thousands – perhaps millions – of human beings who are in touch with their True Self and are able to cope with the demands of daily life in a way that makes them not only productive members of society, but change agents for good on earth.
But does this meaning always bring happiness? No.
This got me thinking about public figures that I admire. People who started revolutions and brought change to the world. People like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. There’s no doubt that these people lived meaningful lives. But were they happy all the time? Was Gandhi happy when he was on a hunger strike? Was Mandela happy when he was in jail for 27 years? Was Che Guevara happy when he was living in the jungle and bumping up against the injustices of his society?
My thoughts raised the question that is the title of this blog. What if you don’t want to do what you’re meant to do?
What if I’m meant to do research, but instead of doing research all day, I’d rather live in a cabin in the woods where I write poetry connect with nature?
How can we best distinguish between what we want to do and what we’re meant to do? And is there a way to have both?
I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts below!
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and yoga teacher who helps people create a life they love. Check out her book, The Antidepressant Antidote, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her whole-self health revolution.
If you’d like tips on how to create a life you love, plus some personal instruction from Bethany, check out her online course, Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom.