07/22/2014 02:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Quest for Joy: It Isn't As Elusive As You Think

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What would you do if money were no object and had no limiting conditions? It's not always an easy question to answer, is it? Because money, for most of us, is limited and does come with conditions (like being earmarked for rent, childcare and other necessities).

When I was asked the same question six years ago when I moved to San Francisco, I answered, "I'd volunteer for nonprofits, take cooking classes and entertain a lot more often." There's nothing wrong with that answer, but it wasn't as though it was meant to be taken seriously.

And that's the problem with the question. Because it begs an answer rooted in fantasy and doesn't allow us to bridge the gap back to our reality.

The better question, the one I finally thought to ask myself, out loud, one day is, "What would bring me joy?"

Working-Wo/Man Blues

When it comes to our working lives there is often a disconnect between our jobs and emotional well being. "It's called work for a reason" is the platitude used to invalidate anyone wishing for more, the idea being that your personal life is where you get to be happy, your work life, not so much. But this doesn't have to be true.

Asking the question, "What would bring me joy?" and answering it in the here and now -- not in some post-lottery win dream scenario -- allows us to get in touch with what is lacking, and not only invite it in, but seek it out.

How many of us have ended up in jobs we hated because:

· We didn't know what we wanted to do yet?
· We were in transition in our lives and needed "something" for the short-term?
· We didn't have the skills for the job we truly wanted?

Almost everyone at one time or another has taken a job for one of these reasons, and stayed for far longer than ever intended. You may be working a job like that right now. You may even have fought and strived to be at the top in a career you initially loved only to feel the same way: unhappy and in desperate need of a change.

Just like anything else, you can outgrow a job or even a career. But making a change to such an important part of your life can feel like a luxury when there are bills to pay and people to answer to. Where do you start? You start with "What would bring me joy?"

Follow Your Bliss & Energy

That might sound like some kind of irresponsible hippie throwback, but there's something to it. Jump and the net will appear, right?

When I answered this question for myself, I knew that my joy would be found in being of service, to volunteer and to express my creativity through cooking and entertaining. With no more than a couple thousand dollars in the bank, I arrived in SF, arguably one of the most expensive cities in the country and started to volunteer full-time.

Crazy? Maybe. Except that one volunteer job led to another and then to a contract opportunity, and now I'm running a global operation in an area I knew very little about and doing work that I love. I also learned a lot about cooking, entertaining and have a thriving community of friends that enjoy cooking and entertaining as much as I do. I followed my passion and the limiting factors took care of themselves.

Was it scary? Yes. But what helped me succeed was following that commitment to joy. I was so enjoying what I did that I couldn't help but do a great job, so each opportunity led to more opportunity.

"It's not that easy," you're thinking. And you're right. Doing what you've always done is much easier than making a change, however much you may want to. It's easier, less scary, safer. Those limiting factors always give us pause, but it's not just the feeling of "I can't afford to do that right now" that stops us. It's just not even knowing what would bring us joy. How can we take a step forward if we don't know where we're heading?

So ask the question. And listen. The answer doesn't have to be significant -- a resounding trumpet blast of decision. It well might be, but if it steals in quietly that's fine too. There is no right or wrong result. Just let whatever it is come out, without trying to mold it into whatever you think it "should" be. Also, don't be afraid to take small steps in that direction. Some of us like to jump in the deep end of the cold pool and some of us like to acclimate to depth and temperature by dipping our toes little at a time. Honor your own process and do it in a way that works for you.

Don't Listen With Your Ears

What if you actually don't know the answer? Or what if the answer to the question is truly, "nothing"?

It's OK. Don't be afraid of "nothing" -- it's your heart's way of telling you to take a break; that now is not the time for upheaval. Honor that. And ask again down the road. If we're lucky, our lives are long, which means we have numerous opportunities to reevaluate how we are living them.

I can tell you that I haven't always listened with my heart, but every time I have, it's been worth it. The times I've look back in regret -- whether the decisions were small or large -- have been the times I haven't listened with my heart.

It's sort of like meditation -- the mind needs to be fairly silent to allow for that open state where you can receive the deeper messages your soul is trying to send you. Take thinking out of the equation and use your heart. It's much more honest and it knows what will bring you fulfillment and joy.

Whether you're someone transitioning into a new phase of your life or someone just starting out on the career path after graduation day, "What would bring me joy?" is a question worth asking. And if down the road that joy starts to wane, be ready to ask again. There is a lot of truth in Confucius's famous quote: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."

So go ahead, allow yourself to ask and honestly answer the question "What would bring me joy?" and take a step or two in that direction by volunteering or going back to school or simply blogging!