Why Am I So Unhappy?

First, an important disclaimer:  this article is about unhappiness on the job, NOT about serious clinical depression.  Depression is often described as the "common cold of mental health" and as the "great pretender", for it is very frequent in our society and yet just as often goes unrecognized or undiagnosed.  Current statistics indicate that 1 of 10 men, and 1 of 5 women, will experience at least one serious depressive episode in the course of a lifetime.  That episode may or may not require professional assistance, but because of the potential risks involved, depression should never be treated lightly.  Depression is not your fault, as it usually involves a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be corrected with appropriate treatment (including, when warranted, the use of prescription antidepressant medications).  If you think you are struggling with severe depression, don't be ashamed to seek help from a supportive professional counselor.  For more about depression, check out this very helpful Web site.

If you've ruled out general depression as a cause (though staying in a job you hate for too long can start to trigger depression in other areas of your life if you're not careful, especially if you're prone to it), it's time to get specific about what is... and isn't... working about your job.  Here are some questions that can help with that.  Take a weekend to get off by yourself and do some serious self-searching about the following questions, so you can pinpoint the problem and develop a concrete plan of action.  The career you save just might be your own!

Question  #1:  Is the problem your work or your job?

Wait a minute, you may ask -- aren't these the same thing?  Not at all!  Many people with whom I've worked tell me, once they understand the distinction, "Now I get it -- I love my work, but I hate my job!"  (Sometimes, though not as often, it's the other way around.)

Work is WHAT you do:  the problems you solve or help solve, the needs you meet or help meet, using your skills and experience and knowledge.  (By the way, if you've never thought of your work in terms of problem-solving, it's time you started!  Without problems, there would be no paying work:  people get paid by contributing solutions to problems that someone with spare cash cares enough about getting solved that they'll pay for answers.  That's true whether you're a CEO or a third-shift production worker, a neurosurgeon or a bungee jumping instructor.)  Do you enjoy the kinds of tasks that make up the core of your work?  For instance, teachers need to enjoy giving lectures and working with students;  accountants need to enjoy number-crunching.  Of course no job is perfect, but if you don't enjoy at least 70% of your daily work tasks, you may be in the wrong profession.  

If you find you don't like your work itself, some professional career counseling to establish your true career interests and motivations may be in order, but as a start, just ask yourself, "What do I really love doing -- so much that I'd do it even if I didn't get paid for it?"  Someone, somewhere, is making a good living doing that (whatever it is) for money -- why not you?  (If what you came up with involves a radical shift from what you're doing now on the job, you'll probably have to consider this a long-range plan, because it won't be realistic to think you can transform yourself overnight.  But don't give up on your dreams either, because dreams are what energize us and keep us going.  If nothing excites you, and you can't think of anything at all that you find fun or enjoyable, consider once again the possibility that you're depressed and don't know it;  see the link above.)

Your job is the context within which you do your work, or (to keep it simple) WHERE and HOW you do your work.  It includes the "terms of engagement" under which you do your work:  the hours you keep, the physical location(s) where you do your work, the specific people (co-workers, bosses, customers) with whom you interact on a day to day basis. It includes issues related to salary, benefits, perks.  It includes company requirements about such matters as how you dress, your commute to work, whether you have to (or get to) travel on the job, and so on.  It includes how many decisions you are allowed to make for yourself and how many decisions are made for you by someone else.  It includes the company culture.   

A place to start in pondering your job situation is to answer the question, "What is it like to work for my company?"  If you've been unhappy for awhile, some strong negatives will probably surface right away.  Grab a note pad and list them, without dwelling unduly on any one of them.  Just set a goal of listing everything.  When the flood of negatives has slowed to a trickle (perhaps you'll have had to go out and buy a second or third note pad), be sure to list the positives, too.  (If there were no positives at all, such as the fact that you do get paid, you'd have left long ago.)

Now, compare how you feel about work and about job.  Which is the problem, which is the source of your unhappiness?  If you love your work but hate your job, your goal is to keep on doing what you've always loved doing, but to do it for someone else -- to find a company or a job situation that fits your needs better.  If you don't like the work itself, a career change is in order (but if you like the company for which you work, you may be able to arrange a lateral move within that same organization).

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