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The Pursuit of Happiness

How to have a meaningful career, and life.

A big concept for a short blog.

“the pursuit of happiness lies in the pursuit….”

These great words jumped out at me from a recent blog by the author Avivah Wittenberg Cox , who has a wonderful way with words.

Isn’t that just it?

It’s the journey not the destination.

I have read many books on the subject. I have listened to the podcasts, delved into the science and found my own fountain of wisdom. Namely this; that the pursuit of happiness hangs in the pursuit of the three pillars of Purpose, Progress and Pleasure.


Defined as ‘one’s intention or objective’ , our purpose is the reason to get up in the morning. Whether to go to work, look after a child, or run a marathon. It’s a sense that this day is important because of that ‘thing’ that needs to be done today. Dan Pink, in his book Drive-the surprising truth about what motivates us, talks about big P purpose and little p purpose.

In the context of professional life, the big P purpose is the purpose of the organisation. As a medic, the health and wellbeing of our patients. As a teacher, the growth and education of our pupils. As a retail assistant, the satisfaction of the customers. But he also talks about the need for a small p purpose – my individual personal purpose in delivering my role. Discovering the sense of self that evolves from doing the work that I do each day. It is so important to understand our own individual purpose if we are to make sense of and be happy in the work that we do. As a medic, it is often the well-being and caring of others, but it might also be problem solving or team collaboration. As a teacher it might well be the growth of others, but it could be the desire to make complicated information simple and interesting. As a retail assistant, it may well be customer satisfaction, but it might be a love of fashion.

To help you identify what your own purpose might be, reflect on the sentence below and ask yourself how you would fill in the blanks:

“The best thing about my job is that I get to do ____________ every day. This matters to me because _________”.


Nothing feels quite as good as the red lines or checked ticks on the To Do list – right?

We need to see progress in our lives if we are to be happy. We need evidence of how far we have travelled. Fitness trackers are a success because they do just that. They celebrate our 10,000 steps and congratulate us when we have walked the equivalent of London to Rome. They remind us that we are doing good and getting there!

Of all the management techniques and life hacks that I have experimented with (and there have been quite a few!) the progress tracker has been the most effective in helping me achieve my goals and in making me feel good about them. Once a goal is set, I focus on the steps I have completed towards that goal, rather than how far I still have to go.

Napolean Hill in his famous book ‘Think and Grow Rich’ highlights the importance of remembering how far we have come rather than being stressed by what has yet to be achieved.

In the leadership development and career workshops that I run, I encourage participants to keep a ‘smile file’. This is a folder or note on their phone where they record a short note of their monthly achievements, or things that went well. A note of what happened, what they did and what strengths they used or demonstrated to achieve this. Also included are words of praise or notes of thanks from others. This serves as a great reminder of the progress we have made and keeps us motivated on those days when work, or the world, is not going our way.

Teresa Amabile in her excellent book, The Progess Principle , talks about how we can use small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity in our work.


Have fun. Catch joy. Do things that make you feel good.

Have you ever listened to a motivational speaker who had purpose and progress in abundance but just didn’t sound that happy?

“There is no point in taking life seriously, you’ll never get out of it alive anyway”

Always loved this quote – first came across it when I was 15 - a good reminder of the impermanency of it all.

We need to actively identify and seek out activities that bring us pleasure, because our brain in not hard wired to do so.

Our brain evolved to promote survival, not to make you feel good”, writes Dr Loretta Breuning. So deliberately make space for activities that help you feel better because if you don’t your brain will find something to worry about.

Pleasure is more than just ‘downtime’. The pursuit of pleasure is a purposeful intention in itself. The key lies in knowing what makes you feel good, have fun or feel relaxed. We need a spectrum of options.

Can you answer the following questions?

What would do you to for pleasure if you had just 5 mins?

(I’d listen to a favourite track on my phone)

What would you do for pleasure if you had 1 hour?

(I’d have strong coffee on a street café and people watch)

What would you do for pleasure if you had one full day?

(I’d head to the beach)

Laughter – the best medicine

Anyone remember the Reader’s Digest? Probably not unless you are of a certain age. This monthly publication of general knowledge had a section entitled ‘Laughter the best medicine’ – a section dedicated to giving the reader a chuckle.

We know from the science of Stress Relief from Laughter, that laughter is often the best medicine.

When is the last time that you had a good old belly ache laugh?

Find out who, or what makes you laugh, really laugh – and make sure you get a good dose of it everyday.


Of course, the magic lies in the balance of all three. Purpose, progress, and pleasure.

Purpose and progress without pleasure leads to burnout.

Pleasure without purpose puts us on a hedonistic treadmill to nowhere.

Purpose without progress results in frustration.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily about finding the sweet spot bet

ween all three, though it exists. Professional sports is a good example of how the sweet spot can indeed be very sweet. In an interview, the tennis player Ivan Djokovic, when asked about the secret of his success, replied : “I just love hitting that ball”. There was real pleasure in the pursuit of his purposeful goal.

For most of us however, the pursuit of happiness is about finding a healthy balance of all three pillars through different avenues. If purpose and progress is your focus at work, then ensure you leave enough time in your day for things that bring you pleasure and prevent burnout. If work has no meaning or purpose for you, find an activity outside of work that will keep you engaged and provides you with purpose. Whether professional or personal, keep track of your goals, and celebrate your progress. Focus on how far you have come, not just the journey ahead.


Sometimes the emphasis will be more on one pillar than another depending on where we are in our lives and career.

Early career

This phase can often see us with a focus on progress. Learning as much as we can, gaining experience and exposure. Striving towards the next promotion, the new job or more money. Some of us are fortunate enough to have a sense of purpose or destination at this time, but many are still unsure as to where their career is going. As such the pleasure is often crammed into the weekends and holidays.

Mid career

Now is a time when there is often a blurred lines between all three pillars of purpose, progress, and pleasure. It is a phase when there can be multiple demands on our time. We can often have a strong sense of purpose at this stage, but with so much demand on our time, it’s difficult to see progress and even more difficult to find time for pleasure.

Late career

With the move to ‘third age’ we can see ourselves with more time for progress and pleasure, but we can often feel challenged by a sense of purpose. That thing that ‘we did for a living’ is no longer such as strong part of our identity and we need to find a sense of purpose elsewhere.

So – how happy are you?

Do one of these pillars of progress, purpose of pleasure need a bit of strengthening and support?

Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint.

You don’t need to have it all, or do it all now. You just need ‘enough’ of each, for today.

Thanks for reading.


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