If you want to be satisfied at work, what should you look for? Prestige, money, something you’re passionate about, a corner office? Books on careers guidance often start by asking you to consider your values and desired lifestyle, and then to find a job that matches them. But why expect this approach to work? Research has shown that the only thing that’s consistently present in satisfying jobs is that the work itself is engaging (1)(2), suggesting that finding engaging work should be the starting point for a satisfying career.

What makes for mental challenging work is broken down into five qualities (4):

  1. Independence –how much are you able to individually decide how to go about the work?

  2. Sense of Completion– how much does the job involve completing a whole piece of work, so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible, rather than a small part of a much larger product?

  3. Variety – how much does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?

  4. Feedback from the job – how much does the work itself provide clues about how well you are doing?

  5. Contribution – how much does your work affect the wellbeing of other people?

A large meta-analysis of survey results (2) showed that each correlates with job satisfaction (mean r=0.41), as well as with motivation, productivity and commitment to your employer. Job complexity and the degree of information processing required are similarly strong predictors, but the evidence is weaker (2).

There’s also some indirect support for this conclusion.

First, employee surveys about job satisfaction (3) have shown that “interesting work” turns out to be what’s most important to people, as opposed to pay or status.

Second, the five characteristics, in particular 4. and 2. are similar to the conditions needed to enter a state of flow (5)(6) – the pleasurable state of being so immersed in an activity that you’re completely free of distractions and lose track of time. Csikszentmihalyi has argued that being able to enter states of flow is key to having genuinely satisfying experiences, so we’d expect this link.

Conditions of flow by Eva-Lotta Lam.

Third, the characteristics are closely related to the characteristics that lead to high intrinsic motivation, which we’d expect to be a crucial part of a satisfying job. Our best current theory of motivation, the Self-Determination Theory, (8) holds that what we require to motivated is:
* Autonomy: exactly as above
* Competence: the feeling you’re good at what you do
* Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people
Competence can arise when you have a sense of completion and feedback from the job i.e. engaging work. Relatedness suggests that some social factors might also be important for job satisfaction. We’ll write about these in the future.

The book Drive by Pink popularises this theory. Pink drops relatedness, but instead includes purpose in your work. This is exactly the same as contribution above.

Finally, the fifth characteristic is the extent to which you make a difference. In the 80,000 Hours community, we’ve long suspected that leading your career for others leads to happiness. We write about this here

Engaging work is important for everyone’s job satisfaction, but it’s much more important for some people rather than others. If you want your jobs to contribute to personal growth and derive satisfaction from performing challenging tasks (characteristics measured with the Growth Need Strength (GNS) score), then finding challenging work should by far be your main concern (7). If you’re wondering, you can measure your score here.

Am I different?

This post has been all about averages, and you might object that as an individual, your individual preferences will tend to overwhelm information about what satisfies the average person. “Sure,” you might say, “challenging work is important, but so is income, status, and so on.”

This might be true. I’m certainly not suggesting that you ignore all the other information you have about what work you’d enjoy. I am suggesting, however, that we start our assessment of which jobs we’ll enjoy with the attributes that normally work. Extra information (for instance based on what’s worked well for you in the past) should be used to adjust our expectations about what will make us satisfied away from what works for the average person. Doing this reduces the chance that we overweight the significance of specific, individual information about what we enjoy (i.e. make the common base rate fallacy). Moreover, while working out what work we’ll enjoy, we should take account of the many biases that hamper our ability to predict what makes us happy. The presence of these biases means that when seeking a job we’ll love, we should place significantly more weight on what normally leads to job satisfaction than we might have first thought, and compared to what happens in conventional careers guidance.

(1) This is a useful summary paper of the literature:
Judge, T. A., Klinger, R. (2009). “Promote Job Satisfaction through Mental Challenge”. Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behaviour, Second Ed, pp107-119

(2) Humphrey, S. E., Nahrgang, J. D., Morgeson, F. P., (2007) “Integrating Motivational, Social, and Contextual Work Design Features: A Meta-Analytic Summary and Theoretical Extension of the Work Design Literature”, Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 92, No.5, 1332-1356

(3) For instance, Judge, T. A., Church, A. H. (2000) “Job satisfaction: research and practice”. In C. L. Cooper and E. A. Locke (eds), Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Linking Theory with Practice (pp. 167-174). Oxford, UK: Blackwell

(4) Often known as the Job Characteristics Model

(5) Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698

(6) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988), “The flow experience and its significance for human psychology”, in Csikszentmihalyi, M., Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–35, ISBN 978-0-521-43809-4

(7) For high GNS employees, the correlation between their score on the five characteristics and job satisfaction was 0.57. For low GNS employees, the correlation was weaker, but still present at 0.32.

Frye, C. M. (1996). “New evidence for the Job Characteristics Model.” Paper presented at the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, San Diego, CA.

(8) Deci and Ryna, “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behaviour.” Psychological Inquiry 11 (2000): 227-68.

(9) Pink, D. “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” (New York: Riverhead, 2009)