Should we sacrifice doing what we love to make a difference? part 2

In my last post, I argued that the conflict between being an effective altruist and having a career one enjoys is less than it first seems, for making a difference can lead to a very satisfying career. We might be tempted to conclude from this that a career’s potential to make a difference should be the primary factor we consider in career choice, and hope that job satisfaction follows on this basis.(1) Sadly I don’t think it’s so straightforward. As I will show, we’re more likely to succeed, and therefore to make more difference, in careers we enjoy. So we still need to think about which careers we’ll enjoy.

Consider a career that has the potential to be very high-impact if done well: some kinds of scientific research, for example. Suppose however that such a career is undertaken by someone who has little or no interest in the research involved. As I mentioned in part 1, I was hesitant to pursue research in a field I was passionate about because I felt that it was likely to be relatively low-impact. Trying to strike a balance between what I perceived enjoying and what would make the most difference, I considered other routes of research that might potentially be higher impact: such as neuroscience. But since I couldn’t imagine being passionate about research that involved spending my time doing experiments in a lab (2), I found it hard to see myself producing ground-breaking research in this field.

It seems like a lack of passion doesn’t translate well into effective work. The intuition here is that the relationship between job satisfaction and effective altruism goes both ways, since effectiveness increases if we find a job satisfying. Some research supporting these intuitions:

If we’re happy, we’re more productive

Most of us would probably report from our own experience that we tend to work more productively when we’re in a good mood than when in a miserable one. A study conducted at the University of Warwick demonstrates this, showing that raised happiness levels lead to a rise in productivity in a paid piece-rate task.(3) Two groups were asked to add sets of five 2-digit numbers. Both groups were paid a set rate for the task and told that in addition they could earn more depending on how many calculations they performed correctly. Participants in one group were shown a comedy video clip before watching the task, demonstrated to increase their happiness levels, whilst the second, “control” group saw no video. Those in the video clip group demonstrated a statistically significant rise in productivity over those in the control group, suggesting that a rise in happiness leads to greater productivity.

A paper reviewing 300 studies suggests that this correlation between job satisfaction and performance generalises.(4) There’s also evidence that it’s replicated at the team level, demonstrating a relationship between employee satisfaction and the overall performance of businesses.(5)

In the aforementioned paper, two theoretical models which might explain this connection between happiness and productivity are proposed. Assume each person has some finite amount of psychological resources. We have to decide how to distribute these resources across different activities – so for the purposes of this model we separate energy devoted to solving tasks at work, and energy devoted to other things. One possible explanation is that increased happiness leads to an increase in total resources available to the worker. Unless all these extra resources are put into other things (6), the energy devoted to work-related tasks must therefore also increase: explaining the increase in productivity. The second proposal is that an increase in happiness leaves total resources fixed but reduces the energy spent on concerns outside of work: as we’d expect happiness to correlate with fewer outside work pressures and stresses. This allows the worker to devote more of their overall effort to work-related tasks.

Happiness facilitates problem solving

The Candle Problem

Research conducted by psychologist Alice Isen suggests that happiness (or positive affect) also enhances problem solving and decision making.(7) A variety of studies, using various different ways of inducing happiness and measuring problem solving, support these findings. For example, people in whom positive affect has been induced are shown to excel in solving problems requiring ingenuity such as Duncker’s candle task. The task involves finding a way to fix a lit candle to a cork board in a way so the candle wax won’t drip onto the floor below, using only a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks. The solution requires having the ingenuity to see that the box holding the thumbtacks as a useful component in itself, which can be tacked to the wall and the candle placed inside. The fact that increased positive emotion correlates with an increased success rate on such a test suggests that when we’re happy we’re more able to think innovatively and creatively to solve a problem.

There’s a proposed neuropsychological basis for the impact of positive affect on areas of cognition, based on evidence that periods of mild positive emotion coincide with an increase in brain dopamine levels, and that increased levels of dopamine in the brain may lead to improvements in cognition (8).This model might also complement the ideas discussed above if psychological resources and dopamine are related.

Happy people are more inclined towards helping others

Many studies have reported that positive emotions promote helping and generosity. Whilst in my last post I noted that people who volunteer tend to be happier than those who don’t, the reverse also seems to be true: happy people are more inclined to do things like volunteer, donate to charity, or help someone pick up dropped papers.(9) For example, if you make people feel happy by, say, leaving a coin in a payphone for them to find or giving them cookies whilst studying in the library, they’re more likely to help you out when you ask them. (10)

If we enjoy our job, we’re less likely to burn out

Another point worth mentioning is that we’re more likely to stick with a job which satisfies us for longer – so the contribution we make will be greater. A meta-analysis of studies linking job dissatisfaction with mental health found the strongest relationship with burnout (as compared with depression, anxiety and self-esteem).(11) We’ll look at the problem of burnout in more detail in a later post.


All this implies that it’s more important for the effective altruist to consider his or her own happiness in a career than we might think. Since increased levels of happiness have been shown to increase both productivity (effectiveness) and helping others (altruism), having a satisfying career should be a key component of being an effective altruist in life. Making a difference helps us to be happy – but happy people may also make more difference. The extent to which a career makes a difference, and to which it makes us happy, are therefore more closely connected than they seem – but are separately important. In upcoming posts I’ll discuss in more detail the problems stemming from focusing too much on our own happiness in career choice, and how to deal with this without discounting happiness as a factor altogether.

(1) It’s also worth noting that of course making a difference is but one predictor of job satisfaction: there’s a lot more to it than this. See /discussion/how-to-find-a-job-you-ll-love

(2) Not that there’s anything wrong with lab research or that it’s not something you can be passionate about – I’m just not sure it’s for me.


(4) A comprehensive review of 300 studies determined that when correlations are corrected for the effects of sampling and measurement errors, the average true score correlation between job satisfaction and performance is 0.30: Judge, Thoresen, Bono and Patton, (2001) “The job satisfaction – job performance relationship”, Psychological Bulletin, 127, 376-407 –

(5) A study of 7,939 businesses in 36 companies demonstrated a significant relationship at the business-unit level between employee satisfaction and business-unit outcomes: Harter, James K.; Schmidt, Frank L.; Hayes (2002), “Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis.” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 87(2), 268-279

(6) Of course it’s entirely plausible that this might happen in some cases, leading to no change or even a decrease in productivity. Intuitively this might correspond to cases where an increase in happiness, caused for example by excitement about something unrelated to work, causes a decrease in concentration thus affecting productivity.

(7) Isen, A. (2001) “An Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues with Practical Implications.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11, 2, 75-85

(8) Dopamine controls the flow of information in the frontal lobes and is commonly associated with rewards systems: providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement thus increasing motivation, suggesting it may mediate the impact of positive affect on cognition: Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., Turken, A. U. (1999) “A Neuropsychological Theory of Positive Affect and Its Influence on Cognition.” Psychological Review, 106, 3, 529-550

(9) Isen, A. M. (1987). “Positive affect, cognitive processes, and social behavior”, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 20

(10) Isen, A.M., & Levin, P.F. (1972), “The effect of feeling good on helping: Cookies and kindness,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 384-388.

(11) The corrected combined correlation between job dissatisfaction and burnout was found to be r=0.478: Cass, M., Cooper, C. L., Faragher, E. B. (2005) “The relationship between job satisfaction and health: a meta-analysis” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 62, 105-112