Since my nephew was born a couple of weeks ago I've become embarrassingly biased. Whenever I see a picture of another baby I think to myself 'my nephew is cuter', I'll show pictures of him to virtually anyone I come across and every time I see tiny clothing I imagine how cute he'd look in it. I'm completely committed to his welfare and happiness, and that's exactly why I'm never going to ask him what he wants to be when he grows up.
The first time I remember someone asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up I was five years old. Britney Spears's '…Baby One More Time' album had just been released and I was obsessed. The path was clear: I was going to be the next Britney Spears. Then I went through a phase where I wanted to be an artist, a policewoman, a detective, a musician – the list goes on.
I stopped having an answer once the pressure to deliver one became more intense. I was around 14 and beginning to think about exams and university. I felt as though if I didn't choose the right subjects at school then I wouldn't obtain the right qualifications, and without the right qualifications I wouldn't get the right job, and without the right job I wouldn't be happy.
This thought process drove me into a blind panic that didn't relent until my final year of university when I watched a documentary called 'Happy'. Researchers who were interviewed in the film found that approximately 50% of the differences in our happiness levels is caused by our genes. According to these researchers, most of us are born with our set range of happiness – our 'genetic set range' – and even when things get really good or really bad for us, after a while we usually return to our set range.
Our circumstances – our income, social status, age and where we live – only accounts for 10% of our happiness. That leaves 40% of what these researchers called 'intentional behaviour'. These are things we can do or work on to become happier, like hobbies and relationships. To my surprise and relief, these were found to be significantly more integral to our happiness than our careers.
A decade of asking myself and having been asked what I wanted to be caused me to either forget or not consider that our careers do not define who we are. Placing such an emphasis on job titles not only makes us lose sight of more important things, but recent studies have also shown the harmful impact it can have on our mental health.
In a study entitled 'Fantasies about work as limitless potential', Susanne Ekmann writes that when we expect our work to make us happy, we engage in emotionally needy, spousal-like relationships with management. We need recognition from them, and feeling neglected or minor disagreements can cause real unhappiness and insecurity. It can also create serious dissatisfaction when the job you are in doesn't measure up to what you thought it would be, or what you imagined yourself doing.
We want to teach children to aspire, to be ambitious and passionate, but we've been asking the wrong questions. We shouldn't be asking them what they want to be, but who; what qualities they want to emulate; what hobbies they want to pursue; what interests them. What we do isn't who we are. I hope my nephew makes that distinction earlier than I did.