Happy Talk

What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s a question almost everyone hears at some point in his or her life, but not one that always receives a serious, thoughtful response. When asked of six-year-olds, answers range from astronauts to “French fry cookers” to Disney princesses to firefighters.

Sixteen-year-olds may have somewhat more realistic ideas, but shrugs and nervous blushes are also common rejoinders. Select high school and college seniors offer confident, detailed career outlines that put older folks to shame, while others exhibit downright panic and a mumbled, “No idea.”

It’s less often asked of adults at mid-life, but that doesn’t mean 40+-year-olds aren’t also considering the question.

Maybe the better inquiry is this: How happy do you want to be?

Recently, my husband and I bought ice cream cones and struck up a conversation with the shop’s proprietor. The guy was chatty, relaxed and practically giddy as he told us about the locally produced products he sold, what the best-selling flavors were and which days typically yielded the most customers. When we finally left the store, which also overflowed with varieties of candy, our cones were nearly gone but a distinct impression remained: running an ice cream/candy shop was a fun job.

“Just think,” said my husband, whose own profession in the legal field seldom yields such happy conversation. “People come in with their kids, friends or grandkids, pick out a flavor they love, indulge in a creamy confection and don’t really complain,” he marveled.

And as I interviewed a local cabinetmaker/woodworker for an article this week, I asked him what he liked best about his work.

“My favorite part is seeing the finished product and the smile on the customer’s face when it’s installed and everything looks good,” he responded, adding that his current profession was more satisfying than his previous stint as a police officer.

Yeah, most of the time, police officers show up at moments of crisis–at an accident, assault or crime scene, to issue a ticket for misbehavior or to investigate a complaint–think barking dogs, loud music, fights or neighbor disputes.

When a childhood playmate who is now a university career counselor posted a Facebook request for tips to offer graduating students in a blog she is preparing called “Backpack to Briefcase,” mostly cliched thoughts came to mind: dress professionally for interviews, seek out mentors, network, polish your resume, seek internships, etc.

Then I realized the best advice might be more fundamental: Pursue whatever profession or line of work you may be good at and interested in, but remember to consider your tolerance for strife. Do you want to spend 40+ hours weekly in a job where the people with whom you interact are always upset about something? Somebody has to do it, but it would be nice to know if airline check-in employees get much positive feedback. (Picture long lines, overweight luggage and argumentative passengers.)

Here’s a short list of other positions that may not have the highest “happiness quotient:” school principals, driving test administrators, jailers, tax preparers, ACT/SAT test proctors, lawyers, social workers…and judges. I mean, who goes to court because they are ELATED about something? (Typically that is only the case with adoptions, naturalization ceremonies or marriages–and reportedly, those are far less common than divorces, disputes and sentencing hearings.)

On the literally positive side: florists (surrounded by beautiful, aromatic blooms), personal trainers/fitness instructors, massage therapists, baristas, pizza delivery people (ok, there are down sides to that, but aren’t most people thrilled to get pizza?) and physical education teachers (wear fitness gear on the job, build physical activity into your day and do your part to keep childhood obesity at bay!).

You may disagree with these observations, or could share the less obvious joys or downers of any job listed above–and certainly attitude is key in making the most of any position–but when commencement season rolls around and I’m invited to jot a few words of written advice in a book or on a frame (in exchange for cake and sandwich) for the graduate to retain for future reflection, I’ve got my new catch phrase already figured out: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Hakuna matata to you, too.