Compartmentalization and Happiness, Part 3

Storyblocks graphic
Credit: Storyblocks

In Part 2, we discussed how you can control your happiness level.

What is the key to being a happy aviator?

Have you ever noticed that you could have two people doing the same job with completely different outlooks on that job? Consider two captains with the same flight credentials, earning the same salaries, flying the same trips. Why can one be highly motivated and eager for every trip, and the other be dreading every moment? A great deal depends on how we view the job.

Is what you do a “job” and nothing more? If your only reason for working is for the pay and all your passion and effort is devoted elsewhere, then perhaps it is just a job. I’ve known a few aviators who have jobs and would give it all up if they knew they could earn more money with less effort or guarantee the paycheck without the trouble of regular medical exams and check rides. Fortunately, these aviators are in the minority.

As an aviator, there is probably more than a paycheck motivating you. If you have larger goals, such as earning that next type rating, getting that next qualification or some other step in the process of becoming a more valued aviator, you have a career. But even with a career, you can find yourself as a small cog in a big wheel, wondering if you are just striving for advancement because that is what is expected of you. Even a career can end up in dead ends and prove unsatisfying. In short, even careerists can be unhappy. There must be more! There is.

If you find what you are doing is intrinsically satisfying, if you think of yourself as doing something that is greater than yourself, then you have what can be called a calling. You might even be doing it without the benefit of being paid. The job itself, the career itself, the activity improves your sense of well-being. It makes you happy.

We typically think that blue-collar workers have jobs, managers have careers, and the more respected professionals have callings. But that isn’t universally true.

Amy Wrzesniewski, a psychologist at New York University, finds all three orientations represented in almost every occupation she has examined. In a study of hospital workers, for example, she found that the janitors who cleaned bed pans and mopped up vomit—perhaps the lowest-ranking job in a hospital—sometimes saw themselves as part of a team whose goal was to heal people. They went beyond the minimum requirements of their job description, for example, by trying to brighten up the rooms of very sick patients or anticipating the needs of the doctors and nurses rather than waiting for orders. In so doing, they increased their own occupational self-direction and created for themselves jobs that satisfied their effectance needs. Those janitors who worked this way saw their work as a calling and enjoyed it far more than those who saw it as a job.

If any job can be viewed as just a job, a career or a calling, then the battle for occupational happiness would seem to depend on how you view your job. An early step in that process is to find a job that you can do well and then do well at it. But if you want to do well at it, you need to motivate yourself to put in the effort. If you view what you do as a calling, the motivation step becomes almost automatic.

You can make a good living as a pilot and be miserable at it. (Some of the most unhappy pilots I know are also some of the best paid.) If you want to be a happy aviator, you need to find something about what you are doing that makes it a calling.

I must admit that there have been times when I thought of flying airplanes as just another job. In this mode, it was hard to motivate myself to work at keeping sharp. I realized after a while that what really energized me to this profession was flight instructing. And that became my calling. This may or may not be your passion but finding out what it takes to get you to approach aviation as a calling will do wonders for your motivation and happiness.

Do Your Various Compartments Support Your Overall Happiness?

Shutterstock graphic
Credit: Shutterstock

Much of our happiness is determined by factors beyond our control, but it is also influenced by factors we do control. As aviators, we can motivate ourselves to work harder if we view what we do as a calling. A happy flight compartment not only makes us better aviators, but it also improves the other compartments. And if we improve the other compartments, they will support our flight compartment in return. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Your social compartment includes your ego and your inner drive to be and do more. Your legacy could be to have a very long and accident-free career. Knowing that could turn that career into your calling. This compartment also includes the people you fly with. We are all a product of the relationships we’ve had, the people we’ve influenced, and those that we have been influenced by. It could be that the actual flying is not the nexus of your calling, but a part of it. It could be that having a positive impact on how others fly is your calling.

Your family compartment can be a great support for your calling, or it could be the reason you see it only as a job. I believe your family will support you as an aviator if it is obvious to them that you support them as a family. If you show your family the love you have for them and the reason what you do for a living is more than just a job, they should support you. Be honest about the risks and how hard you must work to keep up. Include them in the joys of aviation so they can share that joy. Let them know why the flight compartment must have a special part of your life to keep you safe, just as they must have a special compartment in your heart to keep you grounded.

Your work compartment is a natural place to look for something larger than yourself. You might be tempted to minimize your impact on the human condition but remember all you need is to leave the world a better place than it was before to have a positive impact. My first civilian job was flying for Compaq Computer, the company that took IBM's monopoly away and played a key role in bringing computing to the masses. I could say that I was simply a bus driver shuttling our executives from city to city, and in a sense that was true. But I was also making it possible for them to do their jobs, having a profound impact on the world's ability to join the computer revolution. And that was also true. If you can learn the reason your job exists and understand that as an aviator you enable your employers to do their jobs more effectively and profitably, you will have a reason for what you do that is bigger than yourself.

All of this leads to the reasons you need to compartmentalize everything. Compartmentalizing what you do in flight allows you to focus on what keeps you safe. Paying the necessary attention to the social, family and work aspects of your life increases the value of each compartment. This should put your mind at ease, allow you to focus on what is important, and make it easier for you to be happy in every compartment. And that is the calculus that makes this equation work: 

Happy aviator = Safe aviator

Compartmentalization And Happiness, Part 1:…

Compartmentalization And Happiness, Part 2:…

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…