Dear Shannon: How do I create sustainable career happiness?

Dear Shannon is a career advice column for sustainability professionals and wanna-be professionals. If you have a question for Shannon, send it to shannon@walkoflifeconsulting.com.

Dear Shannon,

With the holidays ending and a new year beginning, I find myself wondering what makes me truly happy. I spend so much time at work compared to with my loved ones. Even though I work in the sustainability sector, I am not feeling very fulfilled. How can I get more in touch with what makes me happy and make career decisions around those criteria?

— Jessica, Philadelphia, Pa.

Dear Jessica,

The New Year is a great time to look both forward and backward. We start the year in reflection, deciding what to take with us and what to leave behind as we strive to make this year better than the last. But how do we decide what stays and what goes? You are right to start by focusing on what makes you happiest and most fulfilled. Next, think about how you can map your decisions to those criteria.

Inevitably in this process, we think about our careers. And with good reason. Such a large percentage of our lives is devoted to work. A recent New York Times article identified work as having a strong influence over how happy we are, pointing out, "Work can bring happiness by marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others."

Happiness is everywhere

You may have noticed that that concept of happiness has been getting a lot of press recently. The reason is that we are in the midst of a global happiness movement, full of books, movies and scientific studies. Just last month, I was invited to present at the 6Heads sustainability shorts film festival, an evening of films and clips that inspire change. I selected the film "HAPPY," which highlights how defining our top three to five values helps us to make decisions about how we behave and who we spend our time with so that we can live a happier, more purposeful life.

What I love about this movie is that it takes us on a journey outside of self to help us challenge our core values — it "explores the secrets behind our most valued emotion."

Happiness is not based on material possessions or the wealth generated by local businesses. It's our connection to ourselves and to others. Real satisfaction and meaning emerge when we recognize our interdependence and what that means in terms of how we treat one another and want to be treated. Creating good work and building healthy communities are not just things we dream about. They are what we must do to realize the happiness available to any of us willing to work for it.

Start with values, passion, and purpose

It is important to continue challenging ourselves in order to grow professionally, so, as you decide on goals and challenges for next year, think about what makes you happy, personally and professionally, and start mapping your criteria. This can be difficult in these dark days of January, but in doing so you will set yourself up for a fantastic year. All you have to do is take out a piece of paper and write down:

1. What are your passions?
2. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
3. What is your bigger purpose in life?
4. What characteristics do you admire in others?
5. What do you like, not love, about yourself?

Once you have a one pager answering the questions above, you will have much more insight into how your current job, boss and company fit with you — the authentic you. If upon reflection you see that where you currently are now is well aligned, then you may want to rethink the "grass is always greener" mentality. However, if the writing is on the walls that your current job is not aligned with at least 50 percent of your values, then it may be time to make a change.

There is mounting evidence that many factors besides compensation influence one's happiness at work. According to CNN, a recent study found that some employees were willing to give up nearly $30,000 in salary to be recognized for high praise at work. Another study mentioned found that when employees clearly could see how their work was helping others, their productivity more than doubled, while being reminded of how their work was advancing their own careers had no effect.

The point is that what drives and motivates each one of us is different. You need to identify your personal values and what fulfills you in order to understand your measurement of happiness. Then, you can begin to seek out or create a work environment that fulfils these measures.

Gross National Happiness over GDP

In 1972 the Dragon King of Bhutan coined a national measurement of happiness like the GNP called the Gross National Happiness. Interestingly, the values that drive sustainability roles are perfectly aligned with the four pillars of the GNH:

• The promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development
• The preservation and promotion of cultural values
• The conservation of the natural environment
• The establishment of good governance

What we learn from Bhutan is that you cannot take for granted that standard measures of growth and prosperity, such as GDP, will be universally meaningful. Likewise, the things you are supposed to be striving for in your career may not bring with them satisfaction.

So, what matters most to you?

Remember, sustainable career happiness is a long-term endeavor. The challenges you face in finding personal satisfaction and meaning within a sustainability job are common ones that can be overcome with mindful, proactive behavior.

Kick this year off right by being more true to your authentic self. And then go watch 24hoursofhappy.com for some inspirational dancing and music.

Fingers image by Aaron Amat via Shutterstock.