The rise of the happiness hunters
Smart, successful women are increasingly walking out on lucrative careers to pursue their dreams. Alix O’neill (above) finds out why…
BY ANYONE’S DEFINITION, this was a dream job offer. Here I was, being given the chance to be the editor of a glossy food magazine, with trips around the world to interview Michelin-starred chefs. And yet, even faced with a substantial salary increase and a bathroom cabinet lined with Aesop toiletries, I turned it down. I walked away because, ultimately, I knew the job, despite all its trappings, wouldn’t make me happy.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not sufficiently well off to make a habit of turning down lucrative proposals. As a freelance writer, my pension pot is risible and should my husband and I decide to start a family, I can forget about maternity leave. But I’ve carved out a vaguely comfortable existence doing what I love. I meet fascinating people from all walks of life; I start and fifinish my day whenever I like; I can burn a dozen scented candles while I work and no one’s going to tell me it’s a fifire hazard (in reality, I can just about afford the occasional Diptyque); and I answer only to myself. It’s not everyone’s idea of professional nirvana, but for me, it’s pretty damn close. I’m not alone in jumping off the career ladder. According to a global survey of 20- and 30-somethings by Deloitte*, a staggering 71% of UK respondents said they expect to leave their job within the next fifive years. But for many women, abandoning a well- paid job in favour of personal fulfifilment isn’t
checking out of life: it’s ‘happying out’.
Unlike the Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers before us, Millennials place less emphasis on material wealth and more on flexible hours and a sense of purpose. Deloitte’s Dimple Agarwal says, ‘The focus used to be on job security and financial fulfilment. Money is still important, but it’s not the most important thing. We’re finding that this generation want to work with organisations that share their values and are demanding a more ethical approach from businesses.’
Realising media law wasn’t for her, Jacki West, 32, turned her back on a successful career five years ago. ‘A series of events in my personal life meant that London had become a sad place for me to be and I started to question what I was doing professionally,’ she says. So she resigned, relocated to Berlin having studied German, and spent nine months translating legal documents while retraining as a yoga teacher. ‘Yoga has been part of my life since I was a teenager. Both my grandmothers practised until they were in their nineties and were a huge inspiration.’
Last year, she and her husband bought and renovated a property in the foothills of Portugal’s Sintra Mountains, and hosted two sell-out retreats. ‘I couldn’t have imagined my life as it is now when I was a lawyer in the City,’ says Jacki, now back in London teaching yoga and mother to six-month-old Eric. ‘I never left my job saying, “I’m going to be a yoga teacher,” but by pursuing the things I love, I was able to find a path. People thought I was mad having no plan for the future, but sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.’
Her new lifestyle isn’t as lucrative, though for Jacki, this is immaterial. ‘I used to be a shopaholic; I think I was trying to fill a gap. If you’re happy in what you’re doing you don’t need things.’
Gemma Schlehmeyer, 33, agrees. Despite an internationally successful career, the civil engineer has taken a hiatus to hone her drawing skills at a leading Florence atelier. ‘I’d happily go back to my job at a later stage. But you’ve only got one life, so why not fill it with all your dreams? I followed the traditional path of marriage and buying a house. I had a lot of possessions, but I was tired all the time and not particularly happy. I’ve realised that real wealth is creativity and nature and community. I’m still quite driven, but revelling in the new challenge. In short, happiness for me is adventure.’
And it’s happiness that is the holy grail for the YOLO generation. Hardly a week goes by without a new book on the subject. The Scandinavians seem to have it sewn up. Denmark claimed the top spot in this year’s World Happiness Report Update, with Norway and Sweden hot on its heels. But is it realistic to demand contentment in all areas of our lives?
Blogger and marketing consultant Tanya Korobka believes the boundaries between work and play have become more fluid, not simply because we have constant access to our emails. More companies are embracing work-life integration with lunchtime meditation and flexible hours that allow us more space to breathe. ‘A lot of Millennials want their job to be an extension of their passion and who they are. Take the ‘slashers’, for example (graphic designer/ film-maker, etc). These are people who are family by the time I was 30, but that’s not necessarily what happens any more. I’ve always loved travelling and, with property prices as they are, I can’t afford to buy here, so why not do something different with my life? I know where I’m happiest and it’s not in an office.’
Of course, not everyone can or wants to leave their job to find fulfilment, and the good news is you don’t have to. ‘There’s an element of pragmatism involved,’ says Dr Judith Mohring from the Priory Clinic. She suggests building hobbies around your work to happy out at the weekends. ‘You need to bring in a certain amount of money, but it’s also important to do something that’s in line with your skills and values. Even if it’s in a tiny way, try to bring the things you love into your life.’
The things I love are: eating peanut butter straight from the jar, my mum, clean pyjamas, hot showers, my husband’s bacon sandwiches, Levison Wood, autumn, navy blazers and writing. With the exception of autumn (and sadly, Lev), it’s fairly easy to get my fix of these on a regular basis. I know that no one thing – job, relationship or otherwise – will lead to perfect happiness (not even Buddhist monks are capable of perpetual bliss) but maybe lots of little changes can take you close enough.
‘People thought that I WAS MAD having NO PLAN for the future, but sometimes you have to take a LEAP OF FAITH’
good at a number of things and want a career that combines all their interests. Doing one job and working your way up for 20 years is a little outdated.’
Felicity King is philosophical about her life-changing decision. The 30-year-old, who practised law in London, resigned last March to go travelling. While in Nicaragua, she hit it off with a fellow backpacker and hatched a plan to open a boutique hostel on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. She has no hesitations about the move. ‘When I was little, I assumed I’d have a house and