Happiness science for breakout careers

The Breakout List
Jun 16, 2015 · 8 min read

People come to The Breakout List while thinking about which companies they want to join, and by association, their careers.

Many have asked us questions about career planning, and some readers asked about finding meaning in life.

We did our research and identified a great book on the topic. The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt. If you like this summary, you’ll love the book — it has numerous interesting points, so much so that it was near impossible to skim read.

This is a summary of some of the main concepts of The Happiness Hypothesis. We have left out the scientific and anecdotal evidence that the book provides. You’ll have to trust us that the book is a convincing one.

While this book isn’t purely focused on careers, it is highly relevant to readers who are thinking about their career.

Adaptation principle

Humans adapt to a new set point for most conditions very quickly. Achievement of a goal will provide only temporary happiness.

The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool.

The adaptation principle is the reason why material possessions, status, and wealth do little for long term happiness (with wealth, beyond certain thresholds).

Variety is the spice of life. Do not gorge on pleasures. Remember the adaptation principle. The wise man “chooses not the greatest quantity of food but the most tasty.”

The right goals

Due to the adaptation principles, some goals make you happier than others.

Aim for goals in the categories of relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and generativity (leaving legacy and contributing to society), instead of wealth and achievement. Our interpretation of the book is that reinterpretation of achievement goals, for example in terms of relationships and societal contributions, can be highly beneficial.

Virtues are a great thing to strive for. For example:

  • Wisdom: which can come from curiosity, love of learning, judgement, ingenuity, emotional intelligence, perspective
  • Courage: which can come from valor, perseverance, integrity
  • Humanity: which can come from kindness, loving
  • Justice: which can come from citizenship, fairness, leadership
  • Temperance: which can come from self-control, prudence, humility
  • Transcendence (ability to forge connections to something larger than the self): which can come from appreciation of beauty/excellence, gratitude, hope, spirituality, forgiveness, humor, zest

Benjamin Franklin had an interesting technique. He developed his own list of 13 virtues, and what each of those virtues meant. For example, temperance: “eat not to dulness; drink not to elevation.”

He had a table where all the virtues were listed. He would mark a black spot on a day where he failed to achieve this virtue. He would focus on only one virtue per week, and aim for no black spots for that virtue for the whole week. He would still record spots for other virtues, but he would not focus on them. He would repeat the cycle after 13 weeks. List of Franklin’s virtues.

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It is also worth mentioning that emotional triggers can be useful to cause behavior change that we logically desire but emotionally fail at. In the book the author uses the example of watching rather unpleasant documentaries to turn himself into a vegetarian for 3 weeks.

Remember, “we grow self-controlled by exercising our self-control, courageous by performing acts of courage.”

Happiness equation

Happiness = S + C + V

S: Set point. Genetic.

C: Conditions.

V: Voluntary actions and choices that you make every day.


It turns out that there really are some external conditions (C) that matter. There are some changes you can make in your life that are not fully subject to the adaptation principle, and that might make you lastingly happier.

Conditions are less important than voluntary actions. Eliminating bad conditions can help reduce unhappiness.

  • Noise. “Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress.”
  • Commuting. People do not adapt to longer commutes, if the commutes are filled with traffic.
  • Lack of control. Even small aspects of control can be beneficial.
  • Shame. Attractive people are not happier than unattractive people. However, plastic surgery for areas we are self-conscious about boosts quality of life (example given: breast reduction and enlargement).
  • Relationships. You never adapt to conflicts in interpersonal relationships.

Voluntary actions

Voluntary activities, on the other hand, are the things that you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. Because such activities must be chosen, and because most of them take effort and attention, they can’t just disappear from your awareness the way conditions can. Voluntary activities, therefore, offer much greater promise for increasing happiness while avoiding adaptation effects.

Aim to achieve states of flow. Especially in work.

It is the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities. It is what people sometimes call “being in the zone.”

The keys to flow:
- There’s a clear challenge that fully engages your attention
- You have the skills to meet the challenge
- You get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step

Flow can also be achieved through activities such as engaging discussions with others, skiing, and so on.

This can be made easier by focusing on engaging at least one of your strengths each day. The author suggests the following strengths test (free registration required). Know your strengths and list activities that engage them.


Express gratitude to benefactors, for example by writing gratitude letters, potentially on a monthly or weekly basis. Help friends. Join or start a group that meets weekly or monthly to share an activity. Perform random acts of kindness.

It is good to have 1–2 strong attachments with people who are good listeners.

Oh, and love is a big one too. The book has an elaboration on passionate vs compassionate love. “If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, the metaphor for companionate love is vines growing, intertwining, and gradually binding two people together.”

The danger points are twofold: getting married at the peak of early passionate love, and breaking up at the first fall of early passionate love.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Meditation, and Prozac

These three all work. Despite pre-existing notions you may have, you absolutely do not have to be depressed to benefit from CBT. CBT can easily be self-administered, with a session taking <15 minutes.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy resources:


Aim to construct or reframe your life in a story you can understand.

Aim for coherence of your physical feeling and conscious thoughts, your actions, and the larger culture that you are part of.

For example, writing can help reframe negative experiences. Spend 15 minutes a day for several days, with no editing or censoring, no grammar structure, just write what happened, how you feel about it, why you feel that way, and so on. Speaking into a recorder is also fine. Aim to answer: why did this happen? What good might I derive from it? Also, talk to your close friends about trauma. Note: this is essentially cognitive behavioral therapy.

We as humans love stories that seem coherent, and bad things can become much better when reframed in a story that makes sense to us.


The one you’ve been waiting for. Work.

As mentioned above, take a strengths test. Choose work that lets you use one of your strengths each day. If your job doesn’t use your strengths, recast and reframe it so that it does.

Aim to see your work as a calling. Understand how it contributes to the greater good, how you play a role in “some larger enterprise, the worth of which seems obvious to you.” When you approach a job as a calling, you will never look forward to Friday or quitting.

Work in a healthy field. Fields are healthy “when doing good (high quality work that produces something of use to others) matches up to doing well (achieving wealth and professional advancement).” If you go into journalism hoping to bring more transparency to the world and end up having to write puff pieces, you may not be happy. If you go into the video game industry to bring people into engaging new worlds and end up building games for ‘free slots’, you may not be happy.

Engage strengths → find more gratification in work → shift into a more positive mindset → see how your work fits into a bigger picture (much easier from a positive mindset).


I like Aristotle’s view. “A good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential and become what it is in your nature to become.”

It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and work, yourself and something larger than yourself.

  1. Coherent story: Understand your life in terms of a coherent story. Seriously, attempt to write out the main points of a novel that may be written about your life.
  2. Goals: Frame career goals in terms of relationships and generativity (leaving legacy and contributing to society), instead of wealth and achievement.
  3. Virtues: Seek to work at companies with virtuous individuals. Wise, courageous, humane, just, temperate, and transcendent people.
  4. Conditions: Avoid environments with uncontrollable noise, especially if the noise is variable. Seek a short commute. Seek a job where you can exercise some aspects of control, even if minute. Ensure that you mend conflicts in interpersonal relationships. I’d suggest learning active listening for that.
  5. Seek flow: Clear challenges that fully engage you, where you have the skills to meet the challenge, and somehow get immediate feedback on how you are doing. Some programming tasks are especially suited to states of flow. Do tasks that engage your strengths.
  6. Build relationships: Express gratitude to people who have helped you at work or in your career. Write gratitude letters. Join or start a group with coworkers or people from your industry that meets weekly or monthly to share an activity.
  7. Reframe as a calling: In conjunction with point #1, try to see how your work fits into a worthy larger undertaking.

The checklist

  1. Have you done a page of free form writing on how your life constructs a coherent story?
  2. Do you have goals written down that are framed in terms of relationships and generativity?
  3. Do you work with virtuous individuals?
  4. Do you have a short commute, a quiet environment, some ability to exercise control, and no interpersonal conflicts with frequently encountered coworkers?
  5. Do your strengths align with what you do? Are you regularly achieving a state of flow?
  6. Have you expressed gratitude to someone who has helped you in your career or at work, in the past week?
  7. Have you done a short written evaluation on whether doing good aligns with doing well in your field? Have you done the same as it applies to your current company, or companies you are thinking about joining?
  8. Have you done a page of free form writing on how your work fits into your life and a worthy larger undertaking?

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