THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Comfort zone: You succeed when you break out

For those of you who graduated from college before happiness courses were available, you have some reading to do. But luckily, almost all the books I've seen on this topic are very interesting.

One is Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Gregory Burns, a professor of psychology at Emory. His research includes athletes, S/M practitioners, even sex with his own wife. And he concludes that doing something outside your comfort zone makes you happy– it can trigger a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a mood-lifter.

You already know this intuitively at work. You look for interesting, challenging projects, and you have a fit when work life becomes routine and your learning curve flattens. When someone asks you why you job-hop, tell them about this research– about how it is abnormal not to job-hop.

But what about home? You watch TV, surf from your sofa, cook dinner but don't venture past pasta. Instead, use the same standards at home as at work: If you're not challenging yourself and learning to do new things at home, Burns suggests that satisfaction will be elusive.

This conclusion is supported by research that says we don't get happiness from our jobs alone– it's something bigger. I quote this research a lot when people tell me they're unhappy and think they'd find happiness if they could just find that dream job: think harder about what you do outside your job.

When I graduated from college, I was really, really lost. I had strings of stupid jobs. I was in a new city with no friends. It would have been a great time to watch TV after work, but I didn't grow up with a TV, so it never occurred to me to buy one. Instead, I read books.

I read a book a night because I was so worried that I was wasting my life, and I thought if I read a new book each night, something would happen. And it did. I felt satisfied with how I was spending my time.

Sure, I was lonely and scared that my life would never turn out to be meaningful. But I learned a lot at night. I stretched myself and read difficult novelists, big ideas, and non-fiction that was out of my comfort zone.

More recently, I found myself vegetating in front of my always-overflowing email during the nighttime, and I realized I wasn't feeling very good about it. So I switched everything up and started running at night. It's hard to motivate yourself to go running at 9pm after putting unruly kids to bed, but I did it, and I felt great. And I'm convinced that it's partly because the run is challenging and, at some point, the email is mind-numbing.

So stop using work as an excuse to not do anything challenging after work. You grow when you challenge yourself, and you need to grow in ways that can only happen outside of work in order to be able to grow at work as well.

This doesn't mean you have to go, go, go. In fact, I'd guess that for many of us, sitting silently doing nothing would be very challenging. I actually know a bit about this because sports psychologists love meditation as a way to overcome obstacles.

When I was playing beach volleyball, I couldn't get my jump serve to be consistent. So I spent twenty minutes each night imagining myself going through each step of my serve: sitting on the floor with my eyes closed, not moving. Even now, when I imagine the serve in my head, I feel my body relax.

Visualizing my jump serve became my favorite part of the day. I hope that one day I can sit still for that long each day again. For now, though, that's an after-work challenge that's probably too much for me.