David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Who’s Happiest?

post # 286 — January 17, 2007 — a Careers post

I went to a dinner party the other night, and my host, who is a partner with a Big-4 accounting firm, was discussing his planned retirement in a few years’ time.

(His firm has a mandatory retirement policy, which we both agreed was a dumb idea. But that’s a topic for another time.)

Anyway, my friend observed that, looking at others who had already retired from his firm, the happiest among them tended to be those who did more than one thing: they started a small business, they did Board work, they consulted, they did some pro bono work, they got involved in their community, or they did some teaching.

The key, apparently, was not doing just one of these. Each activity had its own attractions and pressures. The real answer, it seemed, was having a mixture of things to do, so that you could stay busy without becoming “caught up” in the pressures of obligations that an exclusive focus might bring.

I found this fascinating. I wonder if it’s a generalizable statistical truth that (on average) people with variety in their lives are happier. If so, does it apply at all ages?

What do you all think?


Lora Adrianse said:


Try extending your thought just a bit and see if it feels right. Take it from “people with variety in their lives are happier”…to:

“People doing a variety of meaningful things they love are happier.”

That one feels almost like a universal truth! :)


posted on January 17, 2007

peter vajda said:

Don’t know how your friend defines “happiness”, but, I believe there’s “happy” and “not bored,” two ends of a continuum. Many folks “do” so they are not bored, but, happy, not so sure. I might ask my friend to what degree does s/he experience passion, excitement, gratitude, curiosity and true commitment in what s/he is doing. For me, these are aspects of the experience of “happiness.” I know retirees who volunteer quite a bit and spend lots of time being both not bored and lots of time criticizing other volunteers, finding fault with policies and procedures of the organization for which they are volunteering, and being frustrated by those they volunteer to support. Not bored, variety of things, busy? Probably. Happy? Hmmm. Doing, and doing many things, does not equate with happiness. On the other hand, I also know folks are are totally immersed in one endeavor (art, painting, writing, sculpture, hospice care, pet sitting) and seem to engage life from a state of bliss most often.

posted on January 17, 2007

Bill Dotson said:

I completely agree. The cliche: variety is the spice of life holds very true for me. Personally, I’ll fail if I do one thing for any long period of time (multiple years) because the challenge (shininess) can wear off.

posted on January 17, 2007

Stephanie Lunn said:

I have just stopped working full time. I left my job when my 4 year old daughter asked me if I was happy. When I answered ‘yes’, she said, ‘but Mummy you have a sad face on’. I was writing a work email! So it made me think and in doing so I thought I’d change my life to not only be happy but also seem happier. I feel I’ve made the right move. I’m starting to consult/freelance. Doing what I did before, but on my terms. I don’t have a set income and yet I feel less stressed about everything, including paying the bills. I feel, I’ve regained my power as a person and therefore am objective to the needs of others. I suppose I’m a SheEO. New expression for a woman in charge of her own destiny and life.

When I think of others who have done the same, I think of a friend who climbed the ladder of success very fast but then burnt out. He left his board room job at a very young age, to loaf around in Barcelona and find himself. He started 2 small businesses and is happier than ever. He doesn’t have the earning power as before, but he is definitely a richer man. And another example is my father. When he retired as an FD for a major blue chip company; he did all those things he wanted to do. He completed a music degree, joined an orchestra and became their finance chap. When he wasn’t performing, he’d tavel around the globe. He retired just before 60 and is still going strong at 85. Variety and feeling in charge of your life = happiness.

posted on January 17, 2007

Peggy said:

David –

Love your blog, and loved your book “True Professionalism.” Read it about 7 years ago and have given it as a business gift many times since then.

I think that happiness comes from 1) using our gifts and 2) making a contribution (see more here). It’s possible to do those things when you are focused more narrowly on one or two core life activities, or you can do those two things by being involved in many activities. Perhaps it isn’t so much what you do, as how you do it.

Regards –

The CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer)

posted on January 17, 2007

Danielle Keister said:

I know variety is pretty important to me. It’s one of the reasons I went into business for myself. I felt constantly stymied and bored in my corporate jobs, doing the same ol’ thing, for the same ol’ people. Now, I get to do more of the work that interests me for people I find interesting with way more opportunity to gain new knowledge and learn new skills. I LOVE my life and my work.

posted on January 17, 2007

ed strickling said:

CPAs spend their entire life bouncing from one project to another – and secretely fantasizing what they will do when they grow up – so why would it be different after one retires? ..


posted on January 18, 2007

Wally Bock said:

Variety can make things better in two ways.

Having a variety of things to do means that you can use one to take a break from the other.

Having a variety of things to do means that your different activities can cross-fertilize each other.

posted on January 18, 2007

Dennis Howlett said:

The way I interpret this is as an ‘either/or’ statement. That is sooooooooo Descartes. Why not either/and? For me that changes the perspective to one that is inclusive of folk who need to be part of these important discussions.

posted on January 18, 2007

Rob Reed said:

One possible explanation for your friend’s observation, is that learning a new task creates a release of pleasure-producing chemicals in our brain. Studies on animals show learning a new behaviorial strategy increases prefrontal dopamine. Dopamine is our “pleasure” neurotransmitter released in the brain. By participating in a number of different post-career activities, these people are probably more happy because their learning new things which releases the dopamine.

I enjoy having a sales and markleting consulting firm because it allows me to work with a wide range of clients using a number of different disciplines and areas of expertise.

My first job out of college was working at a “desk job” doing pretty much the same thing every day. I remember constantly looking at the clock to see how long until lunch and how long until “quitting time.” Those were long, long work days.

After I added variety to my career by moving into sales, marketing, consulting and later entrepreneurship, the days go by far too quickly.

posted on January 19, 2007

Sasha Willis said:

Routine life can’t make any person happy & it’s true that life based on varieties and full of adventures is much more happier.It’s also important to relieve the monotony of your job.Your job should’n be only the source of money but somethin’ that brings real satisfaction.It’s the same with private life – when you act according to the wishes of your heart ,you are happy & and to save this happiness you should fight with routine in relationships.

posted on May 6, 2007