Many people aren’t as satisfied as they could be with their careers. This is a big problem: not only is the person less happy, they also end up making less difference in society. The even bigger problem is that people don’t seem to know what to do about this – how to find a job that they’ll find satisfying. There’s a lot of psychology research on happiness that could be really useful, but people don’t seem to be aware of it or at least aren’t applying it.
So we decided to start collecting together the research that seems most useful to job satisfaction, and explain how it applies to your career decisions.
A summary of our findings so far
- “Do what you’re passionate about” may not be very useful, and may actually be counterproductive. We’re often not that great at predicting how happy something will make us, or how long that happiness will last.
- Some simple methods might improve these predictions: using a simple formula, or looking at what the average person enjoys.
- Often aiming for happiness too directly doesn’t work.
- Better instead to aim for happiness indirectly: research suggests we should look for mental challenge, the single best predictor of job satisfaction – though other factors, especially how well a career fits with the rest of your life, are also arguably very important.
- Finding a career you love and making a difference may conflict less than you think: helping others makes us happy, plus happy people tend to be more productive and better at problem solving. So you’ll make more difference in a career you enjoy.
What should you do to find a job you love?
What you’ll really want to know, I’m sure, is how to actually go about finding a job you’ll love, given all these findings.
Here’s our current best guess at how to do this – and we’re hoping to be able to improve further on this soon with more work!
1) Score each of your career options on a scale of 1 to 5, for each of the 5 predictors of job satisfaction (independence, sense of completion, feedback, variety, and contribution – see the detailed summary of our research below for more information on this)
You may also want to add a couple of other factors you think are particularly important to you, ideally based on positive psychology or past experiences. You might want to factor in something like location of work or working hours, for example, if you’ve evidence from past experience that these are likely to substantially affect your career happiness.
2) Do this by getting a good grasp of what each option involves: especially what it involves on a day-to-day basis, which can be all too easily overlooked. Speaking to people with experience in the area you’re considering is really important. The following questions might also help:
How much does this job allow me to decide myself how and when I do my work? (Independence)
How much does the job involve doing a whole, identifiable piece of work with an obvious beginning and end? (Sense of Completion)
How much does this job require you to do many different things, using a variety of your skills and talents? (Variety)
How much are the results of your work likely to significantly affect the lives or well-being of other people? (Contribution)
How much does the job itself (aside from feedback from coworkers) provide you with information about how well you’re doing? (Feedback)
3) The career with the highest overall score is likely to be the one you’ll find most satisfying. You don’t necessarily have to weight all factors evenly: if you think contribution and feedback are roughly twice as important as the other factors, for example, you might multiply the scores for these by two in the overall score.
Now for a more detailed overview of the research we’ve done around job satisfaction leading to these conclusions:
1) Conventional wisdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
“Do what you’re passionate about” is commonly quoted careers advice, but may not actually be that useful.
Passions aren’t things we’re born with. They tend to develop, through mastery and challenging and rewarding work.1 This means if you limit yourself to things you’re already passionate about, you might miss a bunch of career options you could really enjoy.
There are some other problems with the “do what you’re passionate about” approach to job satisfaction. What if you don’t know what you’re passionate about? What if you have multiple passions and you don’t know how to balance them or satisfy them all? What if your passions don’t translate easily into a job? And passions change. So choosing a job based on a fleeting current passion might not lead to job satisfaction in the long-term.
This implies we need a more systematic method for finding a satisfying career than conventional advice would suggest.
2) Aiming directly for happiness may not be the best idea.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.” Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
What all the happiness research suggests is that happiness isn’t so much an end goal, but rather a byproduct of certain other activities. Doing things only because we think they’ll make us happy might end up backfiring, as often the pleasure comes from doing something for its own sake. There’s also evidence that extrinsic rewards for an activity (such as money) reduce intrinsic motivation for that activity. You end up doing it because someone’s paying you, rather than because you want to.2 So focusing too much on your salary might actually prevent you from enjoying your job! (Plus it looks like the received wisdom “money doesn’t make you happy” is pretty accurate – certainly past a certain point.)
Looking for what will make us happy in this direct sense might also lead us in the wrong direction. A number of biases mean that our judgements of how happy a career will make us, or how long that happiness will last may well be flawed or inaccurate.
We’re not entirely sure yet what the best way for avoiding these biases is: using a simple formula based on a “structured interview”-style process looks like it might help. This is what we’ve built into our suggested process above: scoring careers on a range of important factors and then combining these scores in a formula. By testing this process we’ll get a better idea of how helpful this is in practice. Paying attention to base rates also seems a promising tactic for avoiding some of these biases.
3) Look for predictors of job satisfaction
Rather than aiming for happiness directly, aim for those activities evidence suggests make us happy. Based on the research, the best predictor of job satisfaction seems to be mental challenge, which can be broken down into 5 characteristics:1
Sense of completion
A suggested method for finding a job you’ll enjoy then would be to score careers on each of these 5 predictors, and choose the option with the highest overall score.
One explanation for why these 5 predictors work is that these kind of activities allow us to enter a state known as flow. This is what happens when you get so engaged in an activity that everything else disappears and time passes quickly. So it might also help to think about those times when you can remember feeling like this. What kinds of activities crop up a lot here? How could you find a job that incorporates them?
This obviously doesn’t cover it all: other factors, especially those concerning how well a career fits with the rest of your life, are arguably very important. We’re planning to explore this more in the future.
4) Happiness and altruism
Finding a job you’ll love is hard. Finding a job you’ll love that makes a difference: well that seems even harder. But these might conflict less than you think.
First, helping others makes you happy. It has been linked to states of flow, and provides a sense of meaning and purpose to activities which helps to engage the “contribution” part of mental challenge mentioned above.
Second, we’ll make more difference if we enjoy our jobs. Aside from the fact that happy people help others more, they are also just more productive, better at problem solving, so are more likely to be successful in whatever they do.
How we’ve done our research
Our research so far has involved surveying the key psychology literature on happiness and job satisfaction in particular. To make sure our conclusions are reliable, we’ve looked for meta-analyses and summary papers/textbooks to support the results of studies wherever possible. Where findings talk about happiness and decision making in cases other than career choice, we were careful to evaluate how analogous the cases studied were to career choice to justify any inferences drawn.
Some of the research we’ve looked at is directly relevant to career choice: the predictors of job satisfaction, for example. But we’ve also looked at more general research concerning decision making and speculated about how this might apply to career choice specifically. We looked at the biases that affect predictions of future happiness in general and considered how this might affect predictions of job satisfaction. We found research that suggested a simple formula might improve predictions in uncertain environments, and proposed that this might help with choosing a career too. What we haven’t done is test these results for career choice directly, which is important if we want to be confident in the relevance of this research. We’re planning to do this soon (see below.)
There’s still much more we can do to better understand job satisfaction, and provide more actionable advice on how to find a satisfying career. Our next moves will be to:
- Build a more detailed model to help people factor in considerations relevant to job satisfaction: this will include the components of mental challenge, as well as other evidence-based considerations such as income and working hours.
- Test this model directly in our advising sessions and potentially in academic research to find out if it helps people with their decisions.
Directions for longer-term research:
- Look into how to identify and measure the relevant considerations (e.g. those comprising mental challenge) in specific jobs, and how to maximise these factors within a job.
- Similarly, further research into which activities produce a state of flow, and how to experience flow more frequently.
- Developing a better understanding of the biases which affect our ability to predict how much we’ll enjoy different jobs, and debiasing techniques so we can improve on these predictions.
You might also enjoy
- Judge, T. A., Klinger, R. (2009). Promote Job Satisfaction through Mental Challenge. Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behaviour, Second Ed, pp107-119 ↩ ↩
- Deci, E.; Koestner, R.; Ryan, R. (1999). “A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation”. Psychological Bulletin 125 (6): 627688 ↩