Do you love your job? Are you 100% sure you chose the right profession? If you’re a lumberjack, chances are you’ll answer with a resounding “yes!” Because according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who work in agriculture, logging, and forestry have the highest levels of self-reported happiness and meaning of any major industry — and the lowest stress to boot.
“Even on your worst day,” says Dana Chandler, co-owner of Family Tree Forestry in South Carolina, “the wind’ll blow and you’ll inhale a familiar scent — that pine sap — and it’ll just take you to a place of peace instantly … The forest is therapy.”
How many of us can honestly say we feel that way about our workplace?
Well, I can, because I’m a travel writer, and my workplace is filled with quirky neighborhoods, Mediterranean comfort food, and colorful nutters. But what about other people? (I almost wrote “normal people,” but hey, I’m normal. Yes, I am!) The survey shows the next happiest industries are real estate, construction, and management, including waste management. Somehow I don't see those professions particularly blissful, do you?
This brings up the question of just how much can we really trust any survey based on asking folks to describe their own emotional wellbeing.
Author Malcom Gladwell says that deep down, we don’t always realize what’s going on in our own hearts and minds — or even our own tastebuds. “If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you'd say? Every one of you would say, ‘I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.’ It's what people always say when you ask them. ‘What do you like?’ ‘Dark, rich, hearty roast!’ What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard [Moskowitz, a prominent market researcher] somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that ‘I want a milky, weak coffee.’”
Humans have a natural tendency to say what others want to hear and to present ourselves in the best possible light. This may account for the survey’s results about non-work activities, in which the majority virtuously asserted they were happiest at church, the gym, and helping others. Wow, we’re a nation of Mother Teresas who like to keep fit. Or maybe we just want to think we are.
“To know thyself,” said Socrates, “is the beginning of wisdom.” But if we can’t accurately identify our own coffee preferences or how we like to spend our leisure time, what chance do we have of understanding ourselves — or anybody else? How can we hope to connect with others on a meaningful basis?
The first step is finding ways to move conversations from casual chat to deeper dialogue. Meeting someone for the first time, you naturally ask them about themselves, but are you framing the right questions? Photographer Koreen Odiney, whose job (like mine) often involves talking with strangers, asks things like “What has been keeping you sane lately?” and “How do you describe the feeling of being loved?”
“Questions,” she says, “force people to examine the assumptions they make about each other. We all create stories based on first impressions, but typically we don’t go a step further and scrutinize them.” Having tweaked her questions for years, in 2018 she created the card game We’re Not Really Strangers.
[Try a few sample questions and then see the game in action.]
In long-term relationships, it’s tempting to assume we already know everything that's going through our partner’s mind. We don’t. There are always topics we haven't explored; just last month I discovered Rich’s favorite color is green. And everyone’s constantly evolving; he certainly didn’t have a pigeon fetish when we first met. To make sure we check in with each other properly, we often organize date nights.
During lockdown, we went all out, using themed date nights to preserve what was left of our sanity. They gave us something to look forward to and a chance to get creative with food, décor, entertainment — and conversational topics. We spent many hours and glasses of wine discussing 36 Questions: How to Fall in Love and, for more strenuous mental exercise, 255 Philosophical Questions to Spark Deep Critical Thinking.
You’ll be glad to hear the younger generation is keeping the tradition alive. Rosie and Ryan Piper post TicTok videos of their date nights. (Don’t get excited — not the X-rated parts, just the social stuff). They organize two dates a month, one at home, one out in the world, alternating who is responsible for planning each one. Their dates have included golf, a pumpkin patch, and cooking Italian food after a trip to Europe.
“On one date they got matching tattoos,” I told Rich.
He just rolled his eyes.
Even without the matching tattoo option, there are plenty of interesting activities listed on sites such as “100 Best Romantic Date Ideas” and the budget-conscious 10 Cheap Dates That Don’t Suck, which in these inflationary times is apparently known as “infla-dating.” Cheap dates are fun. I know, because Rich and I have done lots of them over the years, visiting museums, bookstores, parks, pub trivia nights, and other places that give us plenty to talk about.
I was aghast when one young blogger advised a date centered around cleaning the apartment. No, please don’t! Scrubbing plumbing fixtures is extremely unlikely to leave anyone feeling amorous. Although to be fair, according to Rachel Needle of the Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, “Research shows that heterosexual couples who share household chores have sex more often.” Yes, but I’ll bet they don’t have it right after a “cleaning date.” I can just imagine Rich’s face if I was ever foolish enough to propose that as a theme.
We've also enjoyed low-cost outings via Meetup, a free, online platform listing thousands of small groups formed by neighbors with common interests in everything from conventional pastimes (dog walking, guided meditation, salsa dancing, books, wine, etc.) to the esoteric (e.g., UFOs , pigeon racing, and cryptozoology, the study of creatures that may not exist, like Bigfoot). The last Meetup Rich and I attended was a free drive-in movie marathon of all the King Kong movies. Now that’s entertainment.
I don’t pretend to know whether being a lumberjack is really the best job in America. But I believe we’re all seeking the feeling Dana Chandler described: the breath of fresh air, the serenity of feeling at home on the planet, the keen awareness of life flourishing all around us. How can we capture such moments, if we’re not lucky enough to work in the woods? “Pay attention,” says Susan Sontag. “It's all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” There’s nothing like a date night to a secret location (even if it’s just a dive bar set up in the living room) to inspire that sense of delighted anticipation that reminds us it's fun to be alive.
And now, after all this talk of dating, I just had to share this very short video of the mating dance of the Hooded Grebe. Obviously we humans could take some pointers from them.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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