Find Joy with a Lower-Paid Career

Karen Madej

Chasing salary highs may harm your happiness.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The sum of happiness is $75,000, according to a study by Kahneman and Deaton (2010). They distinguish between emotional well-being or the quality of how you feel on a daily basis, covering how often you are emotional and how strongly it makes your existence happy or unhappy. And life evaluation is what you think about your life when you count what status and money give you.

‘More money does not necessarily buy more happiness,’ Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman 2010

I chased promotions and increased salaries for two decades. I did pretty well, loved my work and I got to that £40,000. I worked hard and played harder.

Five years in London city was a riot of long hours, excessive drinking paid for by my employer under the guise of expenses signed off by my or a colleagues’ manager. We’re talking about goldfish bowls of Gavi de Gavi that cost a fiver over twenty years ago!

The negotiations we had while three sheets to the wind, usually after the higher-ups had retired to their hotel rooms, often solved our workday issues. At least one of us was capable of remembering what had been agreed, usually.

One particularly auspicious night at Kensington Roof Gardens (before they were closed) involved a very high-heeled pair of Jane Norman’s best work (Louboutin’s have always been out of my price range). After strutting around in them for most of the evening, they were beginning to rub.

The copious glasses of wine, and the lateness of the hour, contributed to my crawling across the dancefloor on my hands and knees, to the delight of the stragglers still upright on the sidelines. I think I went to my hotel room shortly after that.

Not quite a scene out of The Wolf of Wallstreet but you get the picture, right?

A party lifestyle is not sustainable. There are always consequences.

After various budget cuts when our department moved on from throwing huge budgets at a lucrative start-up, the product progressed to in life or business as usual. Add the death of my step mum and I was on a path to ruin.

Requesting and being permitted to work from home, I shut down everything I enjoyed doing at work. I found and gave other people my various responsibilities. I did myself out of a job. It hadn’t been a conscious decision but something drove me to do it.

Human resources and my manager invited me to take on a new role as a helpdesk call volumes analyst. I told them I couldn’t do the job. They told me there weren’t any other choices. I guessed I’d have to do it then.

My manager of five years, also a one-time friend, became known to me as a chaotic force. Behind her back and under my breath, I called her ‘that bloody woman’, because she had to be steered in the direction of reality where both men and business were concerned. Personally, I think she abandoned me because I was of no further use to her.

I was allocated to a woman half my age. She was my previous boss’s new numbers buddy who I had willingly shared all my knowledge with when she joined the team.

Betrayal is a powerful cudgel. A nagging germ of doubt has caused me to ponder whether I brought it on myself, but at the time I was driven by forces out of my control.

My new manager was all about quantitive and qualitative statistics and probably had a degree in the world’s most uninteresting business measurement techniques known to man. For me anyway. No offence to people who love numbers.

I was assigned the daily task of compiling the helpdesk inbound call volumes, with accompanying coloured lines graph and identifying the reasons why any fluctuations happened. I was in the Finance team. There was another manager doing exactly the same thing in the Retail team.

After six months of robotically making up obscure reasons and regularly wanting to slit my wrists, I was called into my manager’s office and told I was being put on a performance plan. No surprise there then.

After being diagnosed, my own particular brand of long-term depression manifested itself in the forms of: out of control crying whenever I met with my new manager, inability to sleep until dawn, and eating one slice of peanut butter and jam on toast per day.

Towards the end of six months long-term sick leave on full pay, a psychiatrist identified denial as my ailment. I’d been pretending my step mum was on holiday and keeping a relationship with another manager secret — at his request — at work.

I was prescribed a different drug and a month’s group therapy paid for by my corporate private health benefits for personal contract grades, a perk of the job along with a company car and oodles of annual leave.

My younger manager offered me a redundancy package. I cried. With relief. At the time, I took the money and ran.

I squandered it on paying off credit card debts that weren’t mine, buying foreign properties that I’ve since been forced to walk away from, and supplementing my crappily paid self-employed jobs.

Has any of the above made me happy? No.

High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton 2010

Give me emotional well-being over being financially well off any day of the week.

What has resulted in great joy was not the equivalent of $75,000 but my journey from 2011 to here. The most I earned was about £15,000 four years ago and paid a little tax.

Last year I earned around £11,000. I was doing what I love. Coaching English as a foreign language. Writing while also living frugally and keeping the lights on when absolutely necessary. And then only energy-efficient bulbs were used.

My emotional well-being intact, I was, finally, a happy bunny.

This article was brought to life by a free Coursera course called The Science of Well-Being. I’ve adapted the main ideas and studies from the course and compared them to my life experiences in my own words. I hope you enjoy this or another course as much as I’m enjoying this one.

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Passionate about climate change and living a debt-free, sustainable life. Determined to learn how to and build an adobe house or Earthship. The goal is to live off-grid and off the land. Energy for heat and to power electrical devices and appliances will use solar, wind, and hydro-powered electricity. No trees will die to make my home.


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