New Blog

I have not added to this blog for some time, but readers who are still following might be interested in my new blog at Career Passion Yogi

I am still writing about career development, but also linking this to my interest in yoga.  Hope you find something of interest!

Mental Health and the Benefits System

Andrea sits down in front of her careers adviser, John, clearly very agitated.  She rushes to get her words out.  “I’ve just come from the Job Centre, and they say I’ve got to have a CV.  Can we get it done today?”

“Yes, we could work on a CV,” the adviser replies.  “But it sounds like it’s the Job Centre that wants this CV.  What do you want?”

Andrea insists that she must have the CV today, otherwise her benefit will be cut. It’s clear that this is the only reason for the CV, and the threat of having her money cut is uppermost on her mind.  She’s typical of many clients referred by the Job Centre.

John has met Andrea before, and when they met a month ago, Andrea had told him that she was on medication for depression and anxiety and had been on Incapacity Benefit for a few years, but had recently been switched back to Job Seekers Allowance, as a result of a medical assessment. Her GP, however, doesn’t think she is ready to work yet.

When they last met, they talked about Andrea’s ideas for the future.  She was once a Care Assistant, but she said “I can’t go back to that work.  Because I just don’t care and it’s not fair on the older people for me to be in that job.  I need to do something else.  Something practical with my hands, so I don’t have to talk to people all the time.”

John offers to ring up the Job Centre and negotiate a more sensible deadline for the CV, and Andrea immediately relaxes.  After some haggling on the phone, it is agreed that the Job Centre will give Andrea more time to create the CV, provided she spends time with the Careers Adviser on “preparation”.

With the immediate threat of being left without money tackled, Andrea is now able to tell John what has happened since they last met.  Her sister-in-law told her that there were jobs going in a local meat-packing factory.  “I really thought about it, ” says Andrea, “but then I got so worried, I had to take more medication, and just go off for a walk.  I was gone all day. My husband knows me, he knew I was getting worse and he wanted me to go back to the GP.  I don’t know why thinking about that job set me off, but it did.  I didn’t feel right for a couple of weeks.  I think my sister-in-law thinks I’m just lazy.”

They talk about the reasons she wants to work – to be busy, to have more money, to get back to a normal life, to be out of the house.  They also talk about the reasons that she doesn’t feel ready.  She can’t face crowds of people.  Some days, she can’t get out of bed in the morning.  She lacks energy.  She has panic attacks when things feel out of control.  “It seemed like a good job for me, just what I wanted, but it just felt like too big a step.”

Andrea and John spend some time thinking about “small steps”.  Andrea comes up with the idea of an exercise class, a craft class at the adult education centre and ringing her friend to go to a nearly town for a shopping trip on the bus.  John suggests voluntary work – maybe in a charity shop to get used to being around people and having a regularly place to be each week.  Eventually Andrea creates an action plan that includes calling into the adult education centre and a local charity shop.   They agree to meet again in a few weeks to review progress and do the dreaded CV.

Andrea looks anxious as soon as the CV is mentioned.  “A CV isn’t just for getting a job,” John reassures her.  “We can use it as a way to think about all your experiences and what you can do.”

This is real career guidance.  Professional careers advisers work from a Code of Ethics, and putting the client’s needs first is at the heart of this.  A professionally qualified careers adviser will explore the deeper issues that prevent people from achieving their goals, rather than focus immediately on job applications.

Professional career guidance, however, is being cut back all over the UK, and replaced by “job search advice” or “employment support”, offered by staff who are often trained only to a very basic level, and who often work in a very target-driven environment – if they don’t get clients into jobs quickly, their organisations won’t fulfil  the targets in their contract and they will be out of a job.  Some of them are on temporary contracts or have performance-related pay, so the can’t afford not to get their clients into work quickly.

You can’t really blame these advisers for pushing their clients to get back into work quickly, but it’s often a very inappropriate approach for clients with mental health problems, who may need to take many small steps towards being “job-ready”.  The process of getting back to work has to proceed at a pace appropriate to the client – it can’t be rushed. Many clients with mental health problems do want to get back to work, but they recognise that they need support (perhaps part-time or flexible hours, a reduced workload or social support), and many employers would rather just employ someone else.  A paid job is often a very the long-term goal.

Clients who are pushed back into work before they are ready, without appropriate support, may find that they can’t actually perform the job at the speed and standard expected, they may feel socially isolated and often find that their condition is exacerbated by the pressure to “keep up”.  Their attendance at work may be poor, especially if they don’t get appropriate support from their employer.  They are unlikely to hold down the job, so the cycle begins again – they are back in the benefit system with even lower levels of confidence.

The Value Of Career Guidance

I was out and about with another Careers Adviser recently, sitting in on some of her Year 11 interviews to see how they were going, as part of our quality assurance process.

The first client of the day was a smart young girl, who sat down confidently and greeted us both.  She was well spoken, and immediately said that she wanted to be a dentist, and she would be doing A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Physics in the school sixth form.

Although she was quite happy to see the adviser, it was clear that she didn’t really think she needed a careers interview.  However, she agreed to the adviser’s suggestion that we “check out her plans, just to make sure she hasn’t missed anything”. She agreed, although she said really wanted to stay focused on dentistry and not be distracted.

The adviser did indeed check out her plans, and they seemed pretty watertight.  She was expecting mainly A and A* grades.  She had done work experience in a dentist’s surgery and loved it.  This was her own idea – “the first idea I’ve had that’s been really mine” – but her parents were supportive.  She had been to a careers fair and picked up some careers information which she had read carefully.  She liked the idea of running her own practice, working with her hands, solving problems and of helping to make the world a better place.  She loved Maths and Physics but was equally good at Biology and Chemistry and knew these subjects were the most important.  She had even looked at the UCAS website and identified some universities she was interested in.

So far, so good.  This is what most people expect a Careers Adviser to check out, and many teachers and non-professionals, if supplied with the right information and enough time, could also check these things out.  Our adviser, however, knew from the research that many young people who are very focused at this age go on to be unhappy with their career choice, but feel it is too late to get off the treadmill and end up feeling stuck in the wrong career.  Over half of university graduates feel they did the wrong degree.

The Adviser congratulated her on her thorough research and agreed that she was a strong candidate for dentistry.  She gave a few figures about the level of competition, and offered to discuss a few ideas that could be a “back-up plan”.  Optometry and pharmacy were suggested as offering the same opportunity to run a practice and use science to help people.  The client was happy to consider these ideas and could see the importance of the back-up plan.

The adviser then went on to query whether she had ever thought of any jobs related to Maths, her favourite subject.  The client said only accountancy, which sounded boring: too repetitive, just making figures add up.

The adviser asked her to picture an engineer in her head.  What did she see?  A man in overalls, working with machines, she replied.  The adviser chatted about some other examples of engineering – using nanotechnology to design face creams, working on coastal defences in areas threatened by climate change and designing mobile phones.  The client pricked up her ears – “wow, that sounds really interesting.  I never would have thought of that.  Maybe I need to look into those ideas a bit more.  I mean, dentistry does sound good, but I guess I haven’t found out enough about the other things I could do.”

They went on to discuss websites that she could use to do further research into these new career ideas.  She seemed really keen, asking lots of questions, and saying at the end that she would start her research tonight.

This client was lucky to live in Wales, and be seen by a Careers Adviser, as every pupil in her school was.  But the practice is giving every year 11 pupil a careers interview with a professional adviser is being phased out.  Only those “most in need” will get career guidance.  This client, who, on the face of it, was academic, well focused and planning to stay in her own school sixth form, would not be a high priority.  The situation in England is even worse, with many schools having no access to a Careers Adviser.  Able Year 11 pupils are supposed to make do with using websites.

Websites are very useful – they contain occupational information, information about courses and entry requirements, helpful advice about jobsearch, applying to university and a  range of other issues relevant to young people.  But without this careers interview, today’s client would never have been motivated to research engineering careers on the website.  Providing websites isn’t enough, if the young people don’t see the point of using them and don’t know what to research.

Can Schools Really Provide Impartial Careers Advice?

I spent in the morning in a rather down-at-heel comprehensive school in a small ex-mining town.  Around the school are preserved relics from the industrial past: a winding wheel, a plough, some ancient trucks, presumably used to transport coal.  It’s always very cold up here, as the wind whips across the top of the valleys, and the view is rather desolate – council estates in one direction and bleak green hills in the other.

I wondered around looking for the school office – they don’t really have a proper reception (obviously don’t get many visitors!) and I was eventually directed down a maze of corridors to the careers office.  The pupils were polite and held the door open for me, and gave me directions with helpful smiles.

As we wait for the first client to arrive, the Careers Adviser tells me that the sixth form is earmarked for closure.  Parents and teachers are up in arms.  The young people will have to travel to nearby towns, using the patchy local bus service, to attend college or the new propsed sixth form centre.  Parents worry about the lack of supervision in college and wonder whether homework and attendance will be optional.  They worry that they won’t be kept informed about problems with attendance and that the teachers “won’t know them well”. Teachers reinforce this by saying that the pupils are not mature enough to cope.

The reality is different – most sixth form college provide very good pastoral care through the tutorial system and usually offer a much wider range of courses, social support and extra-curricular activities.  College can be a great half way house, between school and university.  They give young people the opportunity to mix with a wider range of people, make new friends and gain confidence in travelling outside their immediate local area.

Young people are sometimes nervous about making the break from school, and often want to study with their friends.  The peer group is often the biggest single influence on whether a young person stays in school or goes to college, given the choice.  Choosing the best course is often a lower priority.  School sixth forms recruit well mainly because so many sixteen year olds don’t want to make the break from their friendship group.

And so it’s been in this school.  The Careers Adviser comments that the young people in this school are much less confident than their peers in the other school she works in.  Many rarely travel outside the local area, becuase the transport links are poor.  They have low aspirations, thinking about jobs in retail, childcare, construction or maybe a factory or warehouse.  There are a few high achievers who are interested in the professions, but they are badly informed about the routes in and have few role models.

The school sixth form is struggling, with only 50 pupils in Year 13.  Of these 50, only 8 have applied for Higher Education.  The remaining 42 are unlikely to go university.  Some of them are worried about money.  Most of them will fail to get the grades they need for a good course. They are expecting perhaps a D and an E at best.  The school strongly encourages its pupils to stay on in sixth form, mainly on A-Level courses, even if they only have a few GCSEs at grade C.  It’s not surprising that so many fail to do well.

The Careers Adviser consistently makes Year 11 pupils aware of the alternatives to the sixth form – apprenticeships and college courses – and because of this, some do make the break and choose more appropriate options, but with so much pressure from  teachers and parents to stay in school, many opt for the safety and security of the school sixth form.

As public sector cuts bite in the careers guidance profession, the expectation is that schools will take much more responsibility for career guidance, and there will be a reduction in the number of guidance interviews that take place with Year 11 pupils.  But what school, desperate to keep its sixth form and protect teaching posts, is really going to provide its young people with impartial guidance about all the options?

I won’t be sorry to see more of these small school sixth forms close, as long as there are good sixth form centres or colleges in the area.  Consortiums of schools can work well as an alternative, but only in urban areas where the schools are physically close together and have good transport links.  Sixth form Colleges seem to be a better way foward in more rural areas.

Transport, however,  is a genuine issue, and without free bus passes, travelling to another town just not realistic for some young people.  In the past, 16 and 17 year olds on low incomes have benefitted from Education Maintenance Allowances and Hardship Funds, but this will no longer be the case.  A family on benefits simply cannot put aside £10 or more a week for bus tickets.  If sixth forms are going to close, then free bus passes must be provided to young people from low income families.

Meanwhile the erosion of impartial career guidance in Year 11 is a worry.  Many more young people will be encouraged onto inappropriate academic courses and will emerge at 18 with a couple of poor A-Levels and no vocational skills or work experience.  They will be poorly equipped to compete in jobs market, but, because they are 18, they will have missed out on the guarentee of a training place.  They run the risk of either becoming part of the increasinly large 18-24 unemployed young people or perhaps moving onto a college course or Modern Apprenticehsip that they could have started when they were 16, had they been given better guidance.

Preparing for Medical School Interviews

Q.  I have an interview coming up for a Degree course in Medicine and I really want to succeed.  What can I do to prepare well for the interview?

A.  Admissions tutors for Medical courses have the difficult job of sifting through many very academically well-qualified candidates to find those best suited to a career in Medicine, so you are right to be preparing well for the interview.  The majority of people who are called to interview will have (or be predicted) straight As or A* at A-Level, so the interview is used to distinguish those who have the right skills and attitude.  Most Medical schools also use the UKCAT tests to identify a candidate’s mental abilities (e.g. problem solving, verbal and logical reasoning) and behavioural characteristics.

The interview is used to get a fuller picture of the candidate, their interests, achievements, skills and attributes.  Admissions tutors will be looking for:

  • A good understanding of what is involved in the career (including being prepared for long hours, shifts, a long training period, geographical mobility) but also  operating within a Code of Conduct and with limited resources.
  • A genuine interest in health, medicine and people
  • A lively and well-rounded personality
  • Skills in leadership, communication, decision-making, problem solving, organisation, observation, team-work
  • Excellent academic skills – the ability to self-direct your study, research independently, use IT proficiently, present your findings verbally and on paper, analyse data and memorize large amounts of information for exams.
  • A strong sense of ethics
  • Confident (to communicate, make decisions and take responsibility) but not arrogant – they want people who are prepared to admit when they don’t know all the answers and can learn from mistakes

In preparation for Medical applications,  it is a good idea to do as many of the following as you are able:

  • Carry out a formal period of work experience/observation with a doctor (perhaps your own GP or a local hospital) and reflect on what you learnt from it.
  • Do some voluntary or paid work in a relevant field (e.g. paid work as a health care assistant, voluntary work in a hospital, voluntary work with elderly people, voluntary work with a health/medical support group, St Johns Ambulance/first aid roles)
  • Take on a leadership role (e.g. Student Union rep, School council member, school prefect, football captain, college magazine editor, science society secretary)
  • Take part in extra-curricular activities (e.g. Duke of Edinburgh Award, sports, music, student media, student societies) and think about the skills that you are developing through these activities.
  • Take an interest in current affairs and read the papers, particularly anything related to medicine or health.  New Scientist is also worth reading.
  • Do as much research into the career as possible e.g. the different specialisms, the training involved, the way the NHS is organised, the typical “day-in-the-life” of a junior doctor etc.  You can do a lot of this research on the internet but it is also good to talk to people who actually work in the NHS to get more personal views.
  • Look at the GMC website, particularly Tomorrow’s Doctors and the Principles of Good Medical Practice, as this has really informed the way that doctors are now trained and the ethical environment they work in
  • Choose options within your academic courses that enable you to do some independent research into a medical topic of interest.
  • Find out as much as you can about the specific course and university you are applying to e.g. the teaching methods, the structure of the course and anything that makes it unique.
  • Re-read your UCAS personal statement and be prepared to talk about it.
  • Find out what help is available from your school or college careers service – mock interviews can be very helpful.  http://www.mymedschool.co.uk is a very useful website.

In the run up to the interview, think about the kind of questions you will be asked, and the possible answers you might give.  You can’t be prepared for every question, but there are some key areas that you should prepare for.

Why do you want to be a doctor?  Why would you be a good doctor?  Why should we offer you a place to study Medicine?  What kind of person makes a good doctor?

Use this question to outline the skills and interests you have and how these relate to Medicine.  Back up your answer with some practical examples of things that you have done to test out your commitment (e.g. work experience and what you learnt from it) and to demonstrate your skills and interest.

What are the health implications of the water-shortage in Northern Ireland?  What do you think the impact of the this governments changes to the NHS will be?  Why do you think TB is on the rise in the UK?  What do you think is the most important health-issue worldwide?  Is obesity a class-issue?

Keep yourself up-to-date with what is going on in the world, as you may be asked something about current affairs.  If you don’t know the answer, think about it and make some suggestions as what you think may be relevant, as there may not be one correct answer.  Admissions tutors may be more interested in how you approach the problem than what you actually know.

If you were treating a child who needed a blood transfusion, but her parents refused to allow it on religious grounds, how would you react?  Should smokers who refuse to give up smoking be given expensive medical treatment when money is short in the NHS? Should an obese patient be expected to lose weight before being given an operation?  Who should make the decision not to resucitate and elderly patient?

You will often be asked about an ethical situation, and again, there may not be a right  answer.  Admissions tutors will be more interested in how you approach the problem and show an understanding of issues like: respect for the patient’s dignity and autonomy, safety, informed choice, consent.

What did you enjoy most about your work experience/voluntary work?  What did you find most difficult?  What did you learn about yourself?  What skills did you see doctors using?

Admissions tutors will be looking for a genuine interest and enthusiasm for the job (both the medical problem-solving and the contact with patients), but also a realistic view of the challenges of the job.  A willingness to self-reflect and address your weaknesses is important (as long as your weaknesses are fairly minor!).

What have you enjoyed most about your course?  What have you found difficult?

Show how the things you have enjoyed most relate to your decision to do Medicine.  Make sure you demonstrate the ability to study independently.

Can you give an example of a time when you have had to take the lead and organise other people?  Can you think of time when you have had to work as part of a team?  Can you think of a time you have had to help someone who was very upset or emotional?  Can you think of a time you had a set-back and how dealt with that?  How do you deal with stress?

These questions give you an opportunity to talk about your achievements outside academic life and to show another side to your personality.  You can use examples drawn from your home life, part-time work, course, extra-curricular activities, school/college responsibilities, work experience etc.

What would you contribute to the social and cultural life of this medical school?

Admissions tutors like candidates who are keen to take part in sports, drama, arts and culture.  This is partly because they like a lively medical school, but also because having outside interests can relieve the stress of the job.

On The Day

  • Dress smartly (e.g. a suit,  shirt and tie, shirt and skirt) – it shows you have made an effort and creates a professional impression.
  • Be early and use the time to look around, check your appearance and take a few deep breaths.
  • Keep calm, and remember to listen carefully, smile at the panel, speak slowly and calmly.  Don’t be afraid to ask for a question to be repeated if you need it.
  • Give full and detailed answers, using specific examples of what you have done and what you have learnt from it, but don’t waffle!

Good luck with your interview!  If you have prepared well, you have given yourself the best possible chance of succeeding, so you should feel confident.

It’s always advisable to have a back-up plan, however, and there are many interesting related jobs that are worth considering if it doesn’t work out, from medical research to the professions allied to medicine (occupational therapy, radiography, physiotherapy etc).


How To Make Yourself Lucky

Chance and luck play a huge part in the direction our lives take, not least when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities to work.

One friend of mine, who had been frustrated with her lack of progression at work, finally found her perfect job as the training manager for a group of Care Homes, by chatting to an acquaintance at the school gate.  Another friend, a university Careers Adviser who liked her job but had become rather fed up with the long commute, just happened to be chatting to a colleague in the canteen and he mentioned that one of his students was applying for a Careers Adviser post down the road from where she lived.  She applied – and got the job!

In the last month, I’ve come across:

  • a sixteen year old client who was offered an apprenticeship with his uncle who happened to be building a house (he’d never thought of construction as a career before)
  • an adult client who set up a wedding planning business after having been asked by two friends to plan their weddings,
  • a young woman who happened to be shopping in the local corner shop when she noticed a sign saying they needed a part-time assistant.  It just happend to fit perfectly around her family responsibilities!
  • a computer programmer who was under notice of redundancy, and happened to mention this to a client who then offered him a job in their IT department, doing more practical work that he thoroughly enjoyed

Ask a random group of people how they got their current job, and the chances are, many of them will have got their job through a friend or acquaintance.  In fact, the CIPD estimate that 70% of jobs are found through informal means – through friends and family, proactive networking, speculative applications and cold calling.  There is always a huge element of chance involved in this – whether we happen to meet that random stranger, make the right phone call at the right time (just when gap in the organisation has appeared) or  get chatting to the right person at the school gate. Of course, the more approaches you make, they better your chances of succeeding.

Even in more formal job search methods, there is still an element of chance – whether we happen to buy the right paper, visit the right agency or look on the right internet site on the right day.  These chance encounters can lead not just to a new job, but to a whole new occupation that we might never have considered if we hadn’t happened to see a particular advert or meet a particular person.  Like it or not, most of us are not particularly rational when we choose an occupation.  We don’t research the full range of occupations; we stick to what we know about.  We don’t carefully match our likes and dislikes against the demands of the job; we take what happens to be available and looks vaguely suitable.  Chance plays a very big part in this.

So, if luck and chance play such a big part in career choice, is there anything we can do to make ourselves luckier?  I came across some descriptions of psychological experiments designed to find out just this.  In the first, some volunteers were given a newspaper and asked to go through it counting the photographs.  Unbeknownst to them, the researcher (Howard Wiseman) had inserted an ad which said “Win a £100 by telling the researcher you found this”.  People who rated themselves as lucky before the experiment were more likely to see the advertisement – perhaps because they tended to have their eyes on the bigger picture and spot opportunities that the unlucky people missed.

In another experiment, he asked people to help him get a letter to a random person – say Kate, an events manager, in Cheltenham – by passing it on to someone they knew by name, who might be able to pass it onto someone else who could get it to her.  Amazingly, many people around the UK could get it to her through just 4 contacts.  Some people who had volunteered for the experiment, however, didn’t pass the letter to anyone at all.  When questioned about this, they said it was because they didn’t know anyone who they thought could help.  These people also tended to be those people who rated themselves as unlucky before the experiment began.

He concluded that lucky people tend to have a wider social network and to see that network as being full of people who could help them.  Lucky people are living in a “smaller world” and are more socially connected to other people around the country.  When they need a plumber in a hurry, a new client, some good advice or a new job, they are more likely to know someone who can help them.  Happy coincidences are a frequent occurence, because of their wide social network.

So, if we want to improve our luck, the key seems to be in widening our social networks – taking the trouble to talk to people, being friendly and interested in the random strangers we meet, smiling at the neighbours we recognise, starting conversations with people around the coffee station, using social networking sites and getting out and about in our communities.

This is not a new conclusion.  There is a whole approach to career planning known as Planned Happenstance, which suggests that rather than setting ourselves an end goal, we should keep an open mind, and develop the skills and attitudes necessary to generate positive chance encounters and be prepared to make the most of them when they present themselves. The “Happenstance” refers to the luck element in this approach, while the “Planned” refers to planning to maximise lucky events and our ability to make the most of them.

Attitudes such as curiosity, enthusiasm for learning and willingness to take risks are a key part of this approach, as are networking skills.  Advocates of Planned Happenstance suggest taking part in lots of activities that interest us, developing new skills and trying out many new experience (work, travel and leisure), which will generate many chance encounters, and thus increase our chances of something really lucky happening to us.

Being too focused on an end goal can actually blind us to seeing opportunities when they do present themselves.  Two people might read the same newspaper, but one person will pass right over the job adverts, on the grounds that they aren’t looking for work, while another will, just out of curiousity, scan them and their eye might be caught by something, even though they hadn’t thought they wanted a new job.

So, if you really do want to improve your luck and improve your career prospects at the same time:

  • Be curious and look at the bigger picture
  • Chat to people everywhere you go, including random strangers
  • Do the things you enjoy doing, particularly when it involves meeting others
  • Seek out new experiences
  • Develop your skills – you never know when they might come in handy!
  • Expect the unexpected – you never know when good luck will strike, so be ready to recognise it!

How The People You Hang Out With Can Make You Happy (Or Not)

There is a theory which I have heard more than one life coach put forward that goes like this: you should hang out with people who are richer and more successful than you are, so that the attitudes and habits that have made them rich and/or successful will rub off on you.   Hanging out with these people will create a healthy amount of dissatisfaction with your life and therefore motivate you to set goals and achieve great things.  Mixing with people who have achieved the things that you want to achieve will motivate you to achieve more.

On the other hand, psychologists researching the field of “happiness” are finding that the more we compare ourselves to others (particularly others who are richer, more successful or “better” in some way), the less likely we are to be happy.  The more we read about the rich and famous, the more advertising we watch that shows us all the things we could have, the more we mix with people who have more material wealth than we have, the less content we feel with our lot.

When I worked in South London, the majority of my clients were either on benefits or were asylum seekers.  Many couldn’t even afford to pay the bus fare to college or to buy a sandwich in the canteen at lunchtime.  I talked to them every day about their lives, and when I went home in my old car to my small flat, I felt rich.  I had plenty.  But when I took a year off on maternity leave, I started spending my days with a group of new mums I had met in antenatal classes.  They all seemed to be investment bankers, lawyers or media types, and they worried about parking their smart cars outside my flat.  I suddenly started to feel that what I had wasn’t good enough, and I didn’t like the feeling.  I can’t say it inspired me to be more ambitious – it just introduced a low level of discontent into my life.  It made me realise that, pleasant as they were, they weren’t the people I wanted to hang out with every day.

Now I’ve done what most people do, and surrounded myself with friends on a similar level of income.  I feel quite content again, and rich in the things that matter – health, family, job satisfaction and friendships.  People like to have friends with a similar income level because it’s comfortable.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about not being able to afford an expensive night out and you don’t have to hide your wealth for fear of embarrassing your friends.

We have also got rid of the television in our house.  We still watch programmes on DVDs and on the iPlayer, but we no longer have advertising pumped daily into our house.  And what a difference it makes!  It’s subtle, but I find myself wanting much less.  My children, when asked, couldn’t even think of things they wanted for Christmas (apart from an invisibility potion that really works – not easy to procure!)

I try not to make comparasions with others at all, because thinking about who has the better house, car, holiday, job or children doesn’t lead to warm and friendly feelings.  It just leads into a way of thinking that marks out some people as better or worse than others (and there will always be others better than you).  If I catch myself making comparisons, I will stop myself.  But I can’t say I never do it at all.  Maybe a few Buddhist monks manage it, but most of us make comparasions, whether we are aware of them or not.  And it’s the subconscious comparasions that are very hard to challenge because we don’t even notice we are making them.

Societies where there is greater inequality tend to be less happy, because people are comparing themselves to the very rich.  And the interesting thing is that even the richer people in unequal societies are less happy – after all, there is always someone richer than you, and the values in unequal societies promote the acquisition of wealth rather than the sharing of it.

So if we really do want to be happy, maybe we should be choosing jobs and activities that bring us into contact with people who have less than we do.  Voluntary work is one way of doing this.  Interestingly, the research on happiness also shows that altruistic acts increase our happiness levels too.  We should also be avoiding careers that will have us mixing with with those who are richer and more successful than we are (unless we can develop the strength of character to avoid getting into negative thought patterns and comparasions).

Of course, if we think that wealth and success are more important than happiness, then we should do the opposite!  Bring on the social climbers, and let them get on with it.

There is a pervasive narrative in society that we should all achieve and succeed to the best of our ability, and in the process earn as much money as we can, but really, it’s time to think a bit harder about what we value.  Most of us say we want to be happy, but we don’t always choose things that will make us happy.  Many people will choose a job that pays more money rather than a jobs that offers flexitime or shorter hours.  Many people relentlessly chase promotions without thinking about whether it will actually bring happiness.

I’ve had a few clients who have given up (or thought about giving up) well paid jobs, to do something they enjoy more but pays less.  They worry about whether they are doing the right thing.  They probably are.  But they still worry that they won’t be happy with less money than they are used to or less money than their friends have.   It’s a brave decision to make.

Having made that decision, they may find that they are really enjoying the new job, but struggling to get used to the new income level (although this often isn’t as difficult as they anticipate).  If it is a struggle, they could help themselves by cultivating friendships with people on a similar income level, making time to meet and talk to people with much less money than they have and limiting the time they spend with those who have more money than they do.