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Opinion | The constant search for happiness can make us unhappy

Realize that true meaning isn’t found in success and glamour but in the mundane too

Being a millennial is hard work. In the era of dizzying disruptions, we are expected to change the world and find happiness while doing so. Since the mid-2000s, the interest in happiness, as measured by Google searches, has trebled. While in the early 1990s, there were a few hundred studies about happiness published each year, by 2014, the number jumped to 10,000.

Unfortunately, the obsession with happiness has failed to deliver on its promise. There is growing body of research such as the one conducted by Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto that explains how the constant pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being. People obsessed with happiness often feel like they don’t have enough time in the day, and this paradoxically makes them feel unhappy. The findings are most relevant to the millennials, the generation that has managed to overwork itself into burning out, thereby inventing the phrase, “quarter life crisis".

To avoid this, the first step is to stop trying to be happy all the time. According to Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor, a neurologist, psychiatrist and the founder of Logotherapy, the true meaning of life is discovered in the world rather than within one’s psyche. This implies that we need to create contexts for people to discover their reason for being. Given that millennials spend more than half their lives at work, companies have a critical role in helping discover their potential and find meaning.

According to the Gallup US’s study How Millennials Want to Work and Live published in 2016, millennials struggle to find jobs that engage them. They have the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment, and only 29% of employed millennials are engaged at work. With conscious effort from both millennials and their employers, we can overcome this crisis.

As the author of the book Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith says, there are four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling (the story we tell ourselves). Employers are vital for the first pillar—belonging. They can create contexts for millennials to work with and add value to different communities or teams within the company. Cross-functional projects where senior management has skin in the game can be catalysts in increasing the sense of belonging.

For pillars two, three and four, the onus lies on millennials. It all begins by realizing that true meaning isn’t found in success and glamour but in the mundane too.

During a visit to the NASA space centre in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?" “Well, Mr President," the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon."

The meaning in a job cannot be a function of external validation. To a very large extent, it is the story we tell ourselves and the value we ascribe to our seemingly unglamorous tasks—the ones that don’t make for great social media headlines but are critical for overall organizational goals.

Take a step back from Kennedy and the janitor at NASA to our own offices and ask yourself, especially if you manage a millennial, how often do you acknowledge their work and ask, “What are you doing?" You might be surprised by what you hear.

On the other hand, if you are a millennial feeling overwhelmed and pressured to prove to the world that your work matters, visualize your stakeholders. The ripple effects of your work might be changing their lives in a small but significant way. If you just can’t put the pieces of the puzzle together, maybe your job isn’t the right fit. It is time to move on.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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