What makes people happy at work is bound to vary because everyone is different.
Generalisations of what people enjoy in a workplace, though, and why they choose to do what they do are bound to have some evidence-based reliability.
Intuitively, we all know that someone will like a job and find it fulfilling if we know that they care about the job and that they are good at it. To know a fulfilling career for you then is to find a job that you subjectively enjoy but are objectively good at; one that, if lucky, provides a livable income. Not easy. For one thing, we only become objectively good at something with deliberate practice—what we enjoy we tend to practice; enjoyment and practice becomes a positive-feedback loop and then a self-fulfilled prophecy. We start to believe and behave as though we were ‘made’ to be, say, a packaging and distribution manager. Because we forget how much time we spent conditioning our minds for it.
People often think they enjoy what they enjoy because of who they are. They’re wrong: they enjoy what they enjoy because they’ve done it so long it’s become natural to their brain. What we repeatedly do becomes who we are.
If school children were merely taught mathematics better in the UK (say with the system of Singapore, the best in the world), then there would be more mathematicians and STEM careerists. A whole plethora of potential-work selves have been left behind, because of choices we are often ignorant we are making for a self we think of as too unchanging. (If you have inkling stem could be for you, you could go study; click here for expert inspiration and research-backed advice.)
What makes a good career? Probably, one with as many of these factors.
1.) Good-Enough Money
First, we have to clear the career air. The notion that prestigious success will bring happiness – becoming a lawyer for the success to become happy, say, just does not work. Research by happiness psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has demonstrated relationships and small pleasures day-by-day bring happiness; people rather than status give higher subjective-well-being. Though status certainly helps pride—it’s not being better-off but hunger for admiration and appreciation that motivates status seekers. Perhaps the more expensive the car or house the more desperate to impress the woman, man or other is.
Conversely, they say ‘money can’t buy happiness’. And they’re right, you can’t buy an abstraction, but it can buy a lot of what makes us happy a good-deal of the time. It can buy experiences like holidays, education, food, shelter, more time to enjoy pleasures, freedom, independence and the ability to easily help others. And it has been proven spending on loved ones does make us happy. But – again – it is far from everything; the 80,000 average hours Americans spend at work in a lifetime isn’t compensated by an upper bank balance. A good-enough salary is good enough; an economic paradox called the Hasterlain has proven that more money over-time doesn’t matter. Consider: lottery winners return to a happiness baseline after more than a year.
2.) Employs Your Talents Daily
The more work employed the talents and skills of employees the happier they are. A significant part of happiness is ‘flow’, what psychologists call the easy flow of time when someone does what they are good at. The more flow activities people reported at work the more they enjoyed it—the more they smiled and laughed daily.
3.) Feelings of Personal Control
People enjoy control. They like to be in charge of how they spend their hours on earth. Own bosses and workers-from-home report comparable, sometimes more, stress than at-work employees. But that stress doesn’t deduct from their happiness, it adds to it. Why? Because they are in more control, they are their own manager. What about workplaces? Even within the confines of a workplace, people enjoy what researchers call a span of autonomy. Being a manager or boss is better than being told what to do, too often. Though big tip: it’s just the feeling of control that matters, you can remind yourself that you do what you do because (for now) you want that job – not because you’re told to.
4.) Reasonable Working Hours
If you really enjoy work, it’s not work – it’s play. Sure, that’s true, but no one wants to play constantly. Overwork is real thing, and burnout overlaps with clinical depression. But the massive rise in Google Searches for worklife balance implies there is definitely imbalance. People want more free time to think about other things. Stressful overworked hours are bad for your health. And similarly, insomnia inducing shift work can be bad for your hormones and circadian (sleep-clock) rhythms. Overwork even reduces the quality of your work—so no one wins, yet the myth of work time equaling work gain continues.
5.) Some Colleague Friends
The most reliable predictors of job satisfaction are if you have friends at your workplace and if you like your boss. It seems enjoying work is less about the work than it is the social support for that work. Afterall, we aren’t that different to our fellow primates: feelings of belonging and validation are essential to happy work.
6.) A Tangible Contribution
Some of the happiest professions rate as the ones that tangibly improve others lives, as in healthcare professionals, firefighters. Strong cause and value raising jobs in the environment or against poverty are immensely rewarding. Aligning your values with where you work, and what you do, is an important part of finding work meaningful and therefore happy. If you’re stuck in a job considering the actual role you play in an ecosystem reminds it is valuable after-all – just because it is not before-your-eyes-obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Being a small part is prerequisite to being part of something bigger.
7.) A Short Commute
Statistical analysis has shown that those that live over an hour from their workplace are significantly less happy than those with a shorter commute. Those that work from home are even happier because they can manage their time and environment. And even the means of transport can relate to happiness, a UEA study suggests: using a stressful traffic and parking-necessary-car was worse than public transport and public transport in turn was worse than cycling or walking: because of the stress relieving feeling of personal control (not a victim of bus or parking) as much as the psychological benefit of cardio exercise, the researches inferred.
Strangely, humans are quick to complain about banality and boredom but rarely do we celebrate novelty – their reverse. When did you last hear it was a novel day? When did you last hear about boredom? Novelty is the overlooked virtue of happy work—work that isn’t too repetitive. ‘Every day is different’ comes from the lips of many smugly employed, and that’s for a reason. Your brain thrives on novel subjects, experiences, environments. Doing a bounded task repeatedly can be mind-numbing. So when looking for a fulfilling-job seek what can be novel, or you can make feel novel.
To recap then a fulfilling career is one that:
1.) Offers Good-Enough Money
2.) Employs Your Talents
3.) Allows You Some Control
4.) Has Balance
5.) Has Colleague Friends
6.) Has Ethical Value
7.) Has A Brief commute
8.) Has Novelty
If you are lacking in one area, address that or seek another job that would better fulfil across the spectrum. Considering the above is a promising means to map your future. But as genius writer Jorge Luis Borges would say – beware mistaking the map for the territory. It’ll require mind and heart and luck.