A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night - Marilyn Monroe


image by: George Joch


What the best scientific research tells us is that we often look for the wrong things in job searches: what we think will make us happy at work is very different from what will actually make us happy. It's little wonder, then, that over half of Americans are unhappy with their jobs.

So here’s a summary of what really does and doesn’t matter for job satisfaction, according to the evidence.

1) Don’t worry too much about the salary

Research suggests that obsessing over your paycheck is misguided: a meta-analysis of around 100 studies found that there’s only a very weak relationship between pay and job satisfaction.

The evidence on how money affects happiness in general is mixed. The richest Americans tend to be happier than the average American, but large changes in income — like winning the lottery — don’t affect people's life satisfaction long-term.

Moreover, focusing too much on pay distracts your attention from other important factors. Timothy Judge, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that if you ultimately care about having a job that’s satisfying, "you would be better off weighing other job attributes higher than pay."

So while more money might make you a bit happier at work, it’s not a particularly important factor, and deserves much less attention than we give it.

2) Don’t follow your interests

There’s very little evidence that focusing on your interests is a good path to satisfying work, despite decades of research. This is pretty surprising — a natural approach to choosing a career is something like "figure out what you’re interested in, and then find a job that allows you to do that." It seems intuitively obvious that interests matter: that if you’re really interested in psychology, say, you’d be happier doing psychology research than working in an investment bank.

So why does science suggest interest isn’t that important? First, our interests change faster than we expect them to: multiple psychology studies have shown that we’re bad at predicting what we’ll enjoy in the future. What you find interesting as a 22-year-old graduate might not keep you engaged ten years later. A second possibility is that though our interests do matter somewhat, we overweight them relative to other factors. Even if you’re really interested in psychology, a research job that involves working long hours with people you hate would still make you miserable.

3) Don’t do an easy job

For most people, mental challenge is crucial for being satisfied. It’s tempting to think that an easy job is a great job: you’ll never be stressed, and you’ll always be doing well. But in reality, you’ll probably just be bored. You’ll never have a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

There are actually a couple of tests that measure the importance of mental challenge for particular individuals: the Need For Cognition and Growth Needs scales. And it may not trump other factors for all people. But the evidence is pretty strong that easy work isn’t the path to lasting job satisfaction for anyone.

4) Do work that has wider significance

There’s strong agreement within positive psychology that having a "sense of meaning" is crucial for overall happiness. Unsurprisingly, this translates to the workplace: according to hundreds of studies, feeling that your work contributes to an important cause is one of the most important factors for job satisfaction. Other research in psychology suggests that helping others is one of the most reliable ways to boost your own mood. In one study, students who were asked to perform five "acts of kindness" a week for a six-week period showed a significant boost in well-being compared to those who did not.

Switching to a more meaningful career doesn’t necessarily mean working for a charity — there are lots of ways to make a difference, including research, politics, journalism, and entrepreneurship.

Even if you can’t easily jump ship, there are other ways to make your work more meaningful. You could try volunteering — research has shown that people who volunteer are consistently happier and healthier than those who don’t. Or you might choose to donate a portion of your salary to charity: there’s a growing body of evidence that giving benefits the giver as well as the receiver.

5) Engage in a variety of different tasks

According to the job characteristics model — a theory of job satisfaction backed up by over 200 individual studies — variety is one of the key components of satisfying work. Sonya Lyubomirsky, an expert in the psychology of happiness, suggests that variety helps to prevent what’s known as the "hedonic treadmill" — our tendency to very quickly adapt to positive events. In one study, for example, Lyubomirsky found that students who made their lives more varied by trying out a new activity reported higher levels of happiness than those who didn’t.

Jobs that involve a lot of variety include consulting, construction work, and medicine: you’re likely to be changing projects and working with different people frequently. By contrast, an accountant who sits at the same desk every day doing similar spreadsheet calculations has a low-variety job.

Of course, one way to get more variety at work is to simply ask for it — request to take on a new project or responsibility that’s a bit different from what you normally work on. You could also mix things up simply by changing your schedule and switching tasks relatively often.

6) Get regular, reliable, and informative feedback

Multiple studies have shown that high levels of feedback in a job lead to both increased motivation and general satisfaction at work.

If you don’t get much feedback on how you’re doing at work, it can be very difficult to stay motivated. This may be why PhD students are notoriously unhappy: they spend around five years working on their dissertations, but they don’t really know how it’s gone until they hand them in at the end.

Again, one way to increase the amount of feedback you get in your job is simply to ask for it. It’s also possible to get more feedback from the work itself, though this is harder. Some jobs naturally provide more feedback than others: it’s much easier for a door-to-door salesman to tell how she’s doing by looking at her sales, than it is for a PhD student to know how his thesis is progressing, for example. But it’s not impossible to change — the graduate student could break down her thesis into smaller goals and then track her progress on those goals, for example. In general, the more finely-grained the items on your to-do-list, the easier it is to get feedback on your progress. Which brings us to…

7) Have clearly defined tasks and goals

In an extensive review of the research on job satisfaction, task identity — the extent to which you are able to work on a single project from start to finish, with a clear, identifiable outcome — was found to be strongly related to satisfaction at work. Working your way through clear tasks helps you to feel like you’re making progress, which is incredibly important for motivation, and also provides a sense of achievement, which is a central component of general wellbeing.

Next time someone else sets you a task, make sure you know precisely what that task involves, and what the output should be. If you can, ask to work on whole projects that you can see to completion, rather than just working on a small piece of a wider project that may not have a clear result. And keep writing to-do-lists: break down what tasks you need to do on a daily basis into clear, identifiable chunks —the smaller the better.

8) Have control over what exactly you do

Autonomy — that is, having the freedom to decide what, when, and how you work — is another factor that science suggests is crucial for job satisfaction.

Autonomy allows you to structure your work in a way that suits you: if you prefer to work later in the day, or to schedule your meetings just after lunch, you’ll likely be happier if you have the freedom to do that. But there’s also evidence that the importance of autonomy taps into something deeper. History is littered with examples of people willing to fight or die for their freedom. According to self-determination theory, a theory of human motivation, autonomy is one of three basic human needs that are completely innate, and apply across time, gender, and culture. We need to feel like we are in control of our life and our choices in order to be happy —including in the work we do.

If you’re considering a new job and want to know how much autonomy you’ll have, one of the best ways to find out is to ask people already doing the job if they feel they have enough freedom. If you feel you need more freedom in your current job, you might need to sit down and talk to whoever you report to and see if they’re able to leave things to you a bit more.

9) Work with people you like

The people we’re around can have a huge impact on our mood. So next time you’re considering a job and not sure about your colleagues, remember: these are the people you’re going to be spending (at least) eight hours a day with, five days a week. Choosing a job based on how much you like our potential colleagues might sound silly, but it’s not a bad plan.

Close personal relationships are one of the most important factors for wellbeing. Feeling like we’re socially supported at work can make us less stressed, by acting as a buffer against difficult times. Studies also suggest that people who get on with their colleagues perceive their work to be more meaningful.

10) Do what you’re good at

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, a leading happiness researcher, achievement (or accomplishment) is a central component of well-being. Most of us are constantly striving for a sense of achievement, and feel pretty great when it comes around, like when you finally solve a problem you’ve been struggling with for weeks, complete a large and challenging project, or master a new skill.

This means it’s important your skills are well-matched to the job you’re doing — evidence suggests that the greater the mismatch between your skills and your job, the less happy you’ll be. What this doesn’t mean is that you should only do things you’re already good at. There’s no sense of achievement in succeeding at the same simple task over and over again — achievement requires learning, developing and pushing yourself.

One way to find work that suits your skills but still challenges you is to use your "signature strengths." Signature strengths are things like creativity, perseverance, love of learning and leadership — there’s a full list of all 24 signature strengths here, developed by Seligman. Seligman suggests that most people have three to seven "core" strengths amongst these lists, and research suggests that recognizing and applying these strengths at work leads to increased satisfaction. You can take a test to find out your signature strengths here.

11) Finally, don’t assume finding the perfect job is going to be easy

You might not love your first job — or your second, or your third — and that’s normal. Finding a career you love isn’t straightforward, as the length of this list shows!

Research in psychology suggests that we’re generally not that great at predicting how happy things will make us in the future: our predictions tend to be biased by how we feel right now, and to focus only on the most obvious, essential features. Whilst a large starting bonus makes that job in the city seem very appealing right now, those long hours you haven’t thought about might eventually start to take their toll.

Understanding the science behind job satisfaction will certainly give you a leg up in finding a career you love. But ultimately, the best way to find out whether you’ll enjoy doing something is just to try it. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t find the perfect job immediately, and don’t be afraid to try many different things to find what works for you

Source: Jess Whittlestone and William MacAskill, The social science guide to picking a career you'll love, Vox, December 30, 2014.

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Last Updated : Sunday, July 29, 2018