Which Job Will Make You Happiest? How to Pick a Career You’ll Enjoy

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Does your job make you happy, or does it just pay the bills? Recent job satisfaction research shows that most Americans are unhappy at work.

Why? Apart from issues of pay, benefits and having a decent employer versus one that makes life miserable, there is the nature of the work itself. After all, there are good and bad jobs, and most people would prefer to be chocolate tasters rather than sewer cleaners, even if both jobs paid the same salary.

So which types of employees are the happiest? Or, to put it another way, how do you find the job that will contribute the most to your own happiness? It’s not an easy question to answer, but surveys and research provide some clues, so let’s take a look at the science (and pseudoscience) of job satisfaction.

Job Satisfaction and Happiness Surveys

Measuring and reporting on issues like job satisfaction isn’t straightforward, and it’s tough to quantify ideas like happiness and fulfillment. For example, an article on the Huffington Post says this:

Last year, job search engine Adzuna analyzed more than 2,000 job titles for the three best jobs in the UK. The company’s data revealed that Britain’s most fulfilling careers are: translator, surgeon and web developer.

That info is followed by this: “Jobs were rated according to factors such as job security, pay and income growth potential.” Apparently the data collectors assumed those three factors determined the “most fulfilling careers.” There was no mention of whether the people doing those jobs were actually happy or not.

Interestingly, a study from the University of Chicago, as reported on Monster.com, found that in the U.S. the happiest jobs were, “relatively low paying, with long hours and plenty of stress.” The top 10 included:

  • Clergy
  • Firefighter
  • Travel agent
  • Mechanic
  • Industrial engineer

However, there are big differences between the various surveys and studies. For example, not one of the 10 best jobs listed on CareerCast.com is on the top 10 from the Chicago study.  Of course, different methodologies for conducting research and surveys produce different results. And sometimes researchers are looking at slightly different things. For example, CareerCast.com listed the “best” jobs, not the “happiest” ones. Here are their top five:

  1. Mathematician
  2. University professor (tenured)
  3. Statistician
  4. Actuary
  5. Audiologist

CareerBliss.com tried to be scientific in their rating process, using 57,000 employee evaluations to arrive at a “bliss score” for 450 different positions. When their findings on “the jobs with the happiest employees in America” were reported, these positions made their top five:

  1. Research/teaching assistant
  2. Quality assurance analyst
  3. Realtor
  4. Loan officer
  5. Sales representative

You may have noticed that once again, there’s no overlap between this list and the top five jobs on other lists above. CareerBliss.com used these rating factors: “work-life balance; relationship with coworkers; work environment; job resources; compensation; growth opportunities; company culture; and daily tasks.”

Again, there seems to be some confusion and several broad assumptions, like that compensation or growth opportunities automatically equate with happiness, with no testing of that hypothesis.

The MyPlan.com survey of more than 13,000 users of their website at least asked directly about job satisfaction. Survey takers rated their feelings about current occupations from “miserable” to “very happy” on a scale from 1 to 100. Here are the top five, with their average scores:

  1. Singers (91.7)
  2. Municipal firefighters (90)
  3. Aircraft assemblers (83.3)
  4. Pediatricians (80)
  5. College professors in the communications fields (79.2)

Out of 300 jobs rated, the five with the lowest happiness scores were:

296. Switchboard operators (40.2)
297. Optometrists (40)
298. Carpenters helpers (40)
299. Tellers (39.3)
300. Insurance claims clerks (39.3)

Of course, when evaluating 300 different professions, even 13,000 respondents might make for a poor statistical sample. Some of the less-common professions may have had as few as two respondents. In such a case, if one rated his job “100” and the other “0,” the net result would be “50,” placing it at 208 on the list — even if most people in the profession happen to be happy with their work.

Recent research on job satisfaction done by the Society for Human Resource Management looked at which factors contributed the most to employees being satisfied. Here are the five factors that were “most important to employees,” in order of importance:

  1. Opportunities to use skills and abilities
  2. Job security
  3. Compensation/pay
  4. Communication between employees and senior management
  5. Relationship with immediate supervisor

However, survey-based “research” is biased by the questions asked and data gathered. In this particular study, the researchers report on the percentage of employees who say they’re “very satisfied” with various aspects of work and/or find them “very important.”

But are those the right things to measure? If a worker reports that he is “very satisfied” with his training or compensation, it could just mean that element meets or exceeds his expectations. It doesn’t say anything about whether it makes the job itself satisfying.

And in all cases, the fact that something is rated “very important” to an employee says very little about happiness or job satisfaction. An alcoholic might rate alcohol “very important” even if it doesn’t lead to happiness. And in any case, as pointed out by Harvard College Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert, we’re not very good at predicting what will make us happy.

All research in this area is somewhat suspect, because even the words chosen will alter the way a study is done and the results reported. After all, “best” or “satisfying” are not the same as “happy,” and any one of these words could be defined differently by various researchers.

Solid research about specific job types and their contribution to happiness would randomly select tens of thousands of employees from hundreds of professions, evaluate their general level of happiness, and then control for outside factors. It might be even more useful to follow people as they change jobs, to see how happiness is affected. Since a thorough Internet search doesn’t turn up any studies that use these methodologies, how do you decide which job will make you happiest?

Which Jobs Would Make You Happiest?

Whatever the averages say, you are probably going to be happier in a job for which you are better suited. After all, who’s happy doing poor-quality work or engaging in daily activities they hate? In other words, consider personal factors rather than looking for work according to study results. Ask questions like these:

  • What am I good at (and is there a job where I can do it)?
  • What do I like to do (and is there a job which involves that activity)?
  • When have I felt happiest (and is there a job that replicates that situation)?
  • For which jobs am I qualified?
  • Which jobs meet the criteria above and provide enough income?

And since you may have to do a job that you don’t like, at least for now, why not make it as pleasurable as possible? The Mayo Clinic suggests the following strategies for improving your job satisfaction:

  • Take on new challenges
  • Be a mentor to employees
  • Learn new skills
  • Use mistakes as lessons
  • Be positive
  • Be grateful
  • Use your paycheck to nurture your true passions

Finally, don’t sweat it if your job sucks. “For Americans, job satisfaction does not have nearly as much influence on overall happiness as we tend to assume it does,” says Janet Near, who studies the relationship between employment and life happiness at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. We’re workaholics and spend 50% more time at work than Europeans, but of all the things that affect our happiness, the studies show that work is, “maybe 3 percent of the whole.”

So why is job satisfaction considered to be so important even though the evidence shows that “job attitudes and life attitudes are weakly related?” Near says, “It might be because those who perpetuate the idea — academics and self-help gurus and the like — are people who invest more of themselves in what they do than the average American worker.”

In other words, if you do your work and it pays the bills, just forget about your crappy job when you go home at the end of the day. Don’t worry, be happy.

Your Turn: What job do you think would make you happiest?

Steve Gillman is the author of, “101 Weird Ways to Make Money” and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. Of the more than 100 ways he has personally made money, writing is his favorite (so far).