The Happy Human

Whether you're in school or a graduate, your ongoing education should include a lifelong course on you

Know thyself.
-- Inscription at the Delphic Oracle

Honey, here come the new college graduates. Would you invite them in while I get out the trusty happiness-ometer?

Let's warm up on Joe. He looks as if he could use an espresso. But first we must grill him.

So, Joe, you muddled through college on native intelligence and occasional bursts of academic energy? After seven years of putzing around, changing your major with the seasons, cramming for tests and completing term papers at the last minute, you're unleashing yourself on the world of commerce with only a vague idea of what you're going to do with your life, much less from where your first paycheck is coming?

Happiness-ometer reading: Hey, Joe, wake up and drink the coffee. You're about to get hit by a freight train called reality. Sure, you're happy to be done with college, but you've got no idea how to stay happy.

Who's next? Oh, joy, it's Jan. (Honey, she looks as if she could use a massage.)

Yes, Jan, we congratulate you for graduating with highest honors, completing a cooperative-education program and signing on with a corporate giant. What's that? Oh, so you really don't mind that your academic major and job choice bore you nearly to tears, because, well, you know, it's a high-paying field and besides, it's, like, what your parents always wanted you to do.

Happiness-ometer reading: Mayday! Mayday! Prepare to crash and burn! Jan, here's when you might be happy: when you get home from work, if you do get home from work. Meanwhile, you're going to dread every Monday morning.

Dear, we're giving that happiness-ometer a workout. Can we do the dishes later and listen to the experts now?

Monday-morning passion
"It's about 60 percent of people who are not real happy in their jobs," says Mark Pope, president of the National Career Development Association and associate professor of behavioral studies in the School of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He bases his statement on Gallup surveys.

Pope disputes the conventional wisdom that a person will have three or four different careers over the course of his or her life.

"In career counseling we talk about how you have one career for your entire life," Pope says. "It starts when you're in school, and it goes all the way to when you're in your recreation phase, when you're not working directly. It's that entire thing. It's everything you do during that period. And it includes school."

Pope says career exploration begins as early as elementary school, accelerates in middle school and evolves into career decision-making by high school.

"Career-interest patterns seem to become more concrete around age 15 or 16," Pope says, "and because of that developmental process that occurs, we change the focus of career counseling in high school to making decisions about what kinds of careers are going to be best for this person, are going to be the kinds of things that make them happy, they have some passion for, so that when Sunday night rolls around they're going, 'God, I can't wait to get to work tomorrow.'"

Dating for a career
If you're still clueless about your career when you enter college, you're probably not alone, and at this point you probably shouldn't try to get on track alone. Get some help.

At UM-St. Louis, that would be counseling services, where Sharon Biegen is the director.

"I feel like this is something that should be part of the curriculum -- at least part of an orientation class when people first come to college -- to know these things, to learn these things," says Biegen. She says students need to learn about themselves, which to some extent can be done through testing but also happens through life experience, "through being willing to be open to explore who you are, what you like and what you don't like.

"Who you are is separate from your parents and what they think you should be."

Can you learn this in, say, a weekend?
"I would say, at least, weeks," says Biegen. "And probably it's an ongoing process, because some of it is, for instance, you think that computing is a hot market now, so you think, I should go into computing. Well, you should at least take a computing class to see if it's a good fit for you."

Sort of like dating around for a career, going out with a career field for a semester?

"Yes," Biegen chuckles. "Rather than getting married before you even date."
A no-dating approach can lead to a nasty divorce, whether it's from a spouse or from a job. Even if you do date a career field for a while, perhaps even marry it, things can and do sometimes go sour.

Biegen explains: "If you get to the point where you're graduating from school and you had decided right in the beginning, 'This is what I'm going to be,' and you get to that point of graduation and there's barriers in your way to doing that -- either you decided you don't really like it or there's no jobs in that field or you have to get further education in that field -- then you're going to be stuck if you don't have in your head, 'Well, how do I rethink this? How do I make this kind of decision?'

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