Why Your Own Happiness Is The Most Important Contribution You Can Make


By Brody Hannan

I was reading a post from 80,000 Hours the other day.

If you’re not familiar with the idea – the premise of the Effective Altruism (EA) and 80,000 Hours movements go something like this; ‘you spend 80,000 hours in your career, so how can you do the most good, and give the most to the world?’

What I like about the EA movement is that it encourages people to take different, less conventional, paths in life.

Take being a doctor for example. Just about every Year 12 student predicted to get a high ATAR has been pressured by either their parents or teachers at some point in their life to become a doctor. But is becoming a doctor really ‘doing the most good’?

Let’s say that you did in fact, ace the UMAT, the interviews, the ATAR and got into medicine – even though you weren’t really passionate about medicine. By you being there, you have displaced one person from being accepted into medicine who may have been genuinely passionate. To put it bluntly – one person missed out on being accepted into medicine because you’re there instead.

And here comes the interesting bit. Seeing as you and the total stranger who missed out on medicine would have gone to the exact same lessons, lectures, labs, tutorials – most likely the same placements and ultimately a very similar career – would you be making more of an impact than the person who just missed out?

Unless you were a prodigy in medicine, or had a natural inclination, passion or were exceptionally driven towards medicine, the answer would most likely be no.

And this is where I developed my own personal interpretation of the EA and 80,000 hours mantra – to do the thing where you will make a unique contribution. One thing is for certain – there’s nothing unique about smart kids being pressured into medicine, nor is their impact. Sure they are making a great impact – they’re saving lives after all – but unless they’re extraordinarily passionate or gifted for it, than their impact would certainly not be unique.

It was in this mindset that I discovered a recent video from 80,000 Hours, which they had put out on their Facebook page. Considering it was being promoted through various social media platforms, I should have expected the article to be not much more than clickbait, but I was still surprised when the well-respected 80,000 Hours organisation had titled this one video:

“Our top 3 lessons on how not to waste your career on things that don’t change the world”.

Let that sink in for a sec. Do you notice anything wrong with that statement? Maybe you don’t, and that’s fine. But for me personally, well – I was annoyed with it.

For it implies that we are merely ‘wasting our career’ if we aren’t doing things that change the world.

When I talk about adding value and making a unique contribution, and give examples of doctors, I don’t mean that anyone not in these careers is unable to make a unique impact. Anyone can, no matter what you do.

I was having dinner at a restaurant one night in Canberra, late last year. One of the waitresses there was amazing at her job. She treated you like you were an old friend – she was personable, charismatic and just emanated this sense of warmth and kindness in the way she dealt with customers. She made my experience at the restaurant incredible.

Chatting to her, she said she had just finished high school and was planning on working at the restaurant full time next year.

Initially I was a bit surprised. ‘Someone with as strong communications skills as you could do so much more’, I thought. But when I thought harder about, I realised it was those very traits and skills that made her so good at her job. In many ways she shaped people’s time at that restaurant in a way that no one else could.

She was making a unique contribution.

These critical traits and communications skills are what enables people to make a unique impact. A comforting and empathetic doctor with superior listening skills can make you feel heard and can play an important role in calming the intense rush of hospitals or the long waits of a general practice.

A supportive and encouraging teacher can praise a student and bolster their self-esteem in ways their parents can’t.

The list of examples is endless – when someone brings their own happiness, and outwardly projects their optimism to other people, it allows them to make a unique contribution to the workplace and their clients. I’m sure you could think of some examples where a waiter, a doctor or even a high school teacher, was in a bad mood one day, and how that dramatically influenced your own mood and experience.

The purpose of this article isn’t to undermine the valuable research 80,000 Hours and the wider Effective Altruism movement have done, and for all they have accomplished. In fact, you should check out their websites, subscribe to their newsletter, and take their Career Quiz – I’ve found them both to be incredibly helpful.

But – at the end of the day – you don’t need to be a doctor, teacher or scientist to ‘change the world’. You won’t be able to make ‘impact’ and ‘unique contributions’ unless you yourself are happy, and make an effort to spread your optimism and positivity with the world.  

Brody Hannan is a student at the Australian National University and a member of the Effective Altruism ANU (EAANU).

Meet the author

I’ve just wrapped up my Bachelor of Science at the Australian National University and am looking towards further studies in public policy and a career in teaching. Growing up in Cowra, NSW, I am passionate about improving education outcomes for regional and low SES students across Australia. I want to devote my life to develop the leadership of young people to solve the global challenges of the future.