How Job Hopping Can Help You Be Happy (and How It Can Hurt)

The idea that job hopping hurts your resume has been around for a long time. But what about job hopping’s effect on happiness? Are job hoppers really happier after changing jobs?

Or is there a hidden downside to searching for new career opportunities?

Job Hopping

In her book The Myths of Happiness, author and psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky notes that most of us will work almost 100,000 hours over a lifetime. That’s a quarter of our waking lives devoted to our careers (more if you count all the other shit you wouldn’t do otherwise).

That’s why getting your job right matters.

Lyubomirsky cites some startling statistics: “The average workday in the United States is nine and a half hours long, with 35 percent of us working on weekends, and 31 percent working more than fifty hours per week.”

Since these are averages, Lyubomirsky is careful to say that half of us, by definition, are doing more than this.

I can attest. My days as an attorney were ten hours long at a minimum. Whenever there was a call with Taiwan or Indonesia, I was working well into the evening hours. Many Chicago Bears games were also interrupted by “urgent” work from my boss.

It’s no wonder many of us jump from job to job looking for the perfect fit.

For employees, the concern is that job hopping hurts your resume. For the longest time, the conventional wisdom has been that job hopping signals unreliability to potential employers. Why invest in you if you are going to leave in one to two years?

That attitude is changing. 2013 might have been the “tipping point” year for job hopping. Forbes reported that the average number of years a U.S. worker has been with their employer is 4.6. That figure is even lower for Millennials, dropping to 2.3 years. Experts cited diverse training, larger professional networks, and more pay increases as pros of job hopping. The notion that job hopping hurts your employment opportunities without exception has begun to fade.

But is job hopping good or bad for our careers? And more to the point, is it making us happy?

Job Hopping and Happiness

In The Myths of Happiness, Lyubomirsky writes:

A seminal study on this topic followed high-level managers for five years to track their job satisfaction before and after a voluntary job change, such as a promotion or a relocation within the same company to a more attractive city. The managers were mostly male, mostly white, and averaged forty-five years of age and a $135,000 annual salary. They were doing well. What the researchers found, however, was that these managers experienced a burst of satisfaction—a honeymoon period, in essence—immediately after the job change, but their satisfaction plummeted within a year, returning to their original pre-move level.

Managers who didn’t change jobs in the five-year period, however, felt pretty much the same throughout—no honeymoon, but no crash either. In essence, the folks who changed jobs and the folks who didn’t had the same amount of job satisfaction over a long period.

Are you surprised by this finding? I was, until I thought a bit more about how the study was designed.

What’s going on here is subtle, but important to distinguish. Notice anything about the jobs the high-level managers took? The managers in the study:

  1. Took substantially similar jobs
  2. With the same company
  3. Except in a different city

What the study essentially concludes is that job location doesn’t affect long-term happiness. But that makes sense. The bogeyman of hedonic adaptation ensures that superficial changes like better weather in a nicer city will fade into the background over time.

What you’re left with is the culture of the company you work for and your day-to-day role. In the study, those things stayed pretty much the same before and after the move. The result was predictable when you look at it that way.

I know many folks are job hopping in search for similar career opportunities at similar companies. What this study says to me is that after a temporary bump in happiness, you’ll end up back where you were before: burned out, miserable, and looking for another job.

Here’s a better decision-making rubric for job hopping if you’re unhappy with your current position:

  1. Do take a new job if there’s a substantial change in role, industry, or company size
  2. Otherwise, don’t take the job
  3. If you take the job anyway, know that you’re going to be looking again in a couple of years

Dealing With Job Loss

What happens when job hopping is involuntary?

The reality of post-Great Recession America is frequent layoffs, downsizing, and stubborn unemployment. For many Americans, the result is stagnant wages and gaps in their resumes. I call these “cul-de-sac careers” because they give the appearance of movement without leading anywhere.

In the thick of the crisis, a friend of mine was laid off from two companies in the span of six months, a possibility unheard of even a few decades ago.

What does “job hopping” mean in the era of gigging, serial interning, and perma-temping? How do you prevent the Cul-de-sac Career?

Thankfully, we have the wisdom of recent experience to draw upon. In her book The Up Side of Down, author Megan McArdle relates her experience observing friends who lost jobs during the dot-com crash:

The people who did the best were the ones who had four irons in the fire and three backup plans and never stopped trying something to keep going. These plans weren’t clever or glamorous or even particularly realistic—I’d never have guessed that my blog would ultimately save my career. But the people who weathered the storm had a lot going on. The people who went under were waiting for something to happen.

McArdle calls this The Way of the Shark after the popular myth that sharks need to keep moving or they’ll die.

This is the strategy of “little bets” applied to your career. It’s difficult to know in advance what action you take today can pay off down the road. But even in a world of unknown and sometimes random results, the people who open themselves up to serendipity by taking more action give themselves a better shot of finding “click moments,” as author Frans Johansson refers to them.

Job hopping might be the best strategy for you until something clicks. But until that moment, there will be constant anxiety and questions about whether you’re doing the right thing. Know that toughness goes a long way.

And the alternative might be even worse.

Heading Down the Wrong Path

One of the most important byproducts of staying lean, nimble, and agile is that you minimize the amount of time heading down the wrong path.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen friends of mine sign up for large, upfront commitments with no option to change their minds or adapt to new circumstances down the road.

And these are smart people. Often they are looking at three years of law school. Or a two-year contract extension with their current employer. Or worse yet, a four- to six-year stint in grad school to pick up a navel-gazing degree.

I made this mistake in 2008 when I went to law school. I don’t like seeing my friends make the same preventable mistake. Here’s what I say to friends who are considering big upfront career commitments like grad school:

  • How do you know you will want to still do any of these activities five years from now?
  • How do you know technology will not invalidate or outright disrupt this huge commitment you are making?
  • Can you get what you’re looking for through some other means?

It’s okay if you give yourself permission to fail. If you are willing to quit law school six months into it, then absolutely try it out. Pivot if necessary.

But how many people have the willpower and emotional security to quit law school? Particularly high achievers? Not too many in my experience.

More people are willing to lead unhappy and unfulfilled lives than be perceived as a quitter.

If you spend five years designing a lifestyle that you didn’t really want in the first place, then not only have you wasted five years of your life, but you have also deprived the rest of us of all the remarkable projects you could have accomplished in that time.

And that is a damn shame.

4 Ways to Prevent Job Hopping Dissatisfaction

Lyubomirsky in The Myths of Happiness recommends a number of ways to curb the tendency to want to job hop for the wrong reasons. Feeling entitled is the wrong reason to switch your job. Lyubomirsky’s overarching observation is that when we ratchet down our desires and curb our inflated expectations, we can learn to appreciate what we have.

Here are a few exercises she recommends, plus a bonus technique from Seth Godin:

1. Concrete re-experiencing. Remind yourself in a tangible way what your former, less satisfying work life was like. If you were paid less, cut back on your household expenses for a week. If you worked nights or weekends, try working those hours again. Reconnect with the detriments of your previous job.

2. Concrete observation. Genuinely take note of your advantages and perks. Here’s where comparing yourself to others can do some good. Visit your friend’s office or even the office of your former workplace (you’ll probably want to disguise this as grabbing lunch with a former co-worker). What do you have now that you didn’t back then?

3. The “Last Month” thought experiment. Lyubomirsky conducted a month-long “happiness intervention” wherein volunteers live the month as if it’s their last month before leaving work, family, and friends for a long time. Her hypothesis is that this will prompt her study participants to appreciate their lives more as they mentally prepare to leave. Try it out, even for just a week.

4. Embracing funktionslust. This vaguely naughty-sounding German word actually has nothing to do with erotica. Instead, it’s a state of working discussed by Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception:[Funktionslust] describes the love of doing something merely for the sake of doing it, not simply because it’s likely to work. It’s the player who wants to come in off the bench even though it’s too late to win the game and the chef who puts extra care into an omelet that someone ordered for seven dollars from the late-night hotel menu.”

Sometimes, every tactic fails and you simply have to quit your job and find a new one.

When I reflected on the choice I made for myself recently, I realized that I have a few things going in my favor based on this research.

One, the work I’m doing now is completely different from what I was doing before, and two, I’ve gone from working for a big company to working for myself.

I can’t know if things will ultimately work out, but I believe I’ve given myself a better chance at happiness in my work. If I had simply gone from one legal department to another or stayed in the same industry, I’m convinced now that I would have ended up in the same spot three years down the road.

What about you: How did you handle a recent job hopping experience? Do you think you made the right move based on this research?

Photo Credit: Canadian Veggie via Compfight cc

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