We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy. When asked which factors they’d look for in a 'dream job', most people mention high income and low stress levels, i.e. a well-paid but relatively easy job. At first glance, this sounds great, but the evidence suggests that avoiding stress and having a high income aren’t that important, and have little effect on our overall happiness and job fulfilment. There are five factors of job satisfaction which I’ll discuss, and they're far better indicators of overall happiness and fulfilment at work than money or stress levels. Another common piece of career advice often doled out to high school students or recent graduates is to “follow your passion”, or “follow your heart”. Taken literally, however, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice. For most of us, our passions aren’t the same at 18 as they are at 35, and focusing only on what you’re passionate about now means you risk committing to projects that you soon find uninteresting. Also, most people simply don’t have passions that fit the world of work. The best predictors of job satisfaction are features of the job itself, so if you can find work with these essential features, passion, and more importantly, job fulfilment will follow.
Money does buy happiness (but far less than you think)
We’ve all heard the cliche that “money can’t buy happiness”, but when people are asked what would most improve the quality of their lives, the most common answer is more money.
With good reason, financial security is at the top of most people’s priorities when deciding on a career. So can money make you happier? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The best studies available suggest that life satisfaction increases with the logarithm of income. This means that, while money can make you happier, you need increasingly more money to 'buy' the same amount of happiness. The more you earn, the harder it is to become happier by earning even more. In fact, if you’re earning around £30,000 per year (with no dependents), you’d have to double your income to achieve a 3% increase in your life satisfaction.
"Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work."
Not all stress is bad
Many people believe they’ll be happier if they find a job that’s not too stressful. It’s true that stress, accompanied by feeling out of control or having low autonomy, is bad for you both health-wise and regarding job satisfaction. However, the real picture on stress is more complicated, and there’s good evidence that some level of stress is better than no stress at all, particularly when the demands of your work match your abilities and skills - this is the sweet spot where 'stress' becomes a fulfilling challenge. Just avoiding stress isn’t a good tactic when choosing a career, since a job that’s too easy will leave you feeling bored and unmotivated.
The five factors of job satisfaction
So what should you aim for in your dream job? Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors:
- Independence: the extent to which you have control over how you go about your work.
- Sense of completion: the extent to which your job involves completing a whole piece of work so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible.
- Variety: the extent to which the job requires you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents.
- Feedback from the job: knowing when you’re performing well or poorly, and having opportunities to improve.
- Contribution: the extent to which your work 'makes a difference', as defined by positive contributions to the well-being of other people.
All of these factors correlate with motivation and productivity, and they’re similar to those required to develop flow, the pleasurable state of being so immersed in the task at hand that you lose track of time. Some psychologists argue that this is the key to having genuinely satisfying experiences. Other factors matter to your job satisfaction too, namely things like how well you get along with your colleagues, and 'hygiene' factors, such as having a pleasant office environment and not a long commute.
Can Artificial Intelligence Give Our Lives Meaning? Read more As you might've noticed, most of the above have very little to do with whether the work involves your 'passions'. I co-founded a nonprofit, 80,000 Hours (the number of hours you typically work in your life) to answer the question of how people can choose the careers that will enable them to have the biggest social impact. After years of research, the conclusion we’ve come to is that believing you must find your 'passion' and pursue the career to match it is all wrong.
The problem with pursuing your passion: our interests change
In one study of Canadian college students, it was found that 84 per cent of students had passions, and 90 percent of these involved sports, music, and art. But only three percent of jobs are in the sports, music, and art industries. Most importantly, though, our interests often change significantly over our lifetimes. Psychologists Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy Wilson have shown that this happens much more than we anticipate, so we overrate the importance of our interests. You're more likely to develop a passion for your work if you focus on finding work that's fulfilling and challenging. Steve Jobs wasn't always into technology - he got into the field to make some quick cash, but as his success grew so did his passion until he became one of the most famous advocates of "doing what you love."
"Personal fit is about answering the question of how good you’d become at a particular career if you invested the time, compared to other options. Choose a career with personal fit, and passion will follow."
Of course, choosing the right career is partly about personal factors; different people have different abilities, and it’s important to find a job that’s a good match for you. At 80,000 hours we prefer to talk about 'personal fit' rather than passion. Personal fit is about answering the question of how good you’d become at a particular career if you invested the time, compared to other options. Choose a career with personal fit, and passion will follow.
Pursuing impact over passion: it's the right thing to do
Those with a giving mindset end up more successful, both because people want to help those who help others, and because a sense of purpose motivates them. Ultimately, however, helping others is the real reason to pursue impact through your career - the fact that you’ll achieve personal fulfilment and success is just a bonus.
A college graduate in a developed country has an enormous opportunity to help others and do good with their career - perhaps more so now than at any other point in history. I'm not saying we should choose careers that would make us miserable for the sake of the greater good, but since passions and interests aren't a good predictor for long-term job satisfaction, choosing to focus on doing good will lead you both to developing a rewarding career, and to making a potentially enormous positive impact on the world.
This article is adapted from Will MacAskill's book, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help you Make a Difference (Gotham, 2015).