If you ask most people if they like their jobs, they’ll say yes. Alan Kreuger — scintillating economics professor at Princeton, whom I interviewed this morning — says that this is not because people have jobs they like, but because people have cognitive dissonance and are hard-programmed to like what they have.

On the positive side, this hard-wiring to be happy means that we can get through our days. Life is really difficult, and if we weren’t predisposed to think it’s fun, we would all jump off bridges. But Kreuger says that the cognitive dissonance could harm us in our work world if we could actually make a better decision for ourselves.

And, of course, most of us could choose better. If nothing else, you could look at the reams of new research I spew on this blog and make a decision about your job based on that. And here’s a little more research. Three more ways to think about career happiness:

1. Many people want fame, but it’s bad for you.
An article in today’s New York Times (read it now, because you’ll need a subscription in a few days) says that fame is a key motivator for people. Forty percent of people think they’ll be famous, but in reality, only one or two people in a hundred achieves fame.

Additionally, seeking fame will probably make you unhappy. “The participants in the study who focused on goals tied to others’ approval, like fame, reported significantly higher levels of distress than those interested primarily in self-acceptance and friendship. Aiming for a target as elusive as fame, and so dependent on the judgments of others, is psychologically treacherous.”

2. Rich people are not happier but they say they are.
Kreuger and a bunch of other economists and psychologists developed a new way to find out how happy people are — instead of asking them, have them report how they are feeling at short intervals throughout the day. The findings, published in Science magazine: More affluent people say they are, on balance, happier and less affluent people say they are, on balance, not as happy. But in fact, day in and day out, ones level of affluence does not make one happier.

3. Keep your commute short and your TV off.
Duh. These are so obvious, but so few people really do it. Which is the core problem with all this research. If you want to increase your happiness, you need to make significant changes in your life. Sorry. It’s bad news, but it’s true.

But it may console you to know that when I was talking to Kruger about how few people make changes –even though the advice stems from strong, scientific, psychological research — Kreuger said that when it comes to following advice “the psychologists are just as bad as everyone else.”

8 replies
  1. Max Leibman
    Max Leibman says:

    Great post!

    I was contemplating blogging that NYT article myself. What I found so striking that some of the reasons for wanting fame–for instance, wanting to make an lasting impact–don’t even necessarily come with fame. Case in point, the photo published with the article is a beautiful blond in a limo being mobbed for autographs, but the caption says, “Unidentified Woman!” I appears that she made it, but, half a century later, the Getty and the Times have no idea who she is.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Yeah, that’s a good point, Max. That photo was remarkable for how un-famous that woman is.

    The photo reminded me of when I was playing professinal beach vollebyall. The first time some kids asked me for my autograph, at a tournament, I thought to myself, “These kids are insane. I can’t beleive they want me to sign something for them.” I knew I would never really, really be famous. And I think I just totally don’t identify with the wanting fame issue.

    But then I think about the Business Week issue this week, about competition, and I think maybe fame and competition are both in our genes. Some people are so competitive that they are competitive about when they die, as well.

  3. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    I love almost everything on your site but I must argue vehemently with turning your TV off. As someone whose passion is TV I must say NO WAY. TV makes me happy and allows me to gain empathy and understand people-one of those important things you yourself promote. There’s nothing wrong with visual narrative arts and in this day and age, there’s a greater increase in quality programming. If you don’t believe me, try The Wire and experience the life of an American city and the people who live there. It’s all about seeing the creativity and intellectual that TV can bring and not just surfing randomly unless you need a little relaxing time.

    As this is my future career and TV is something I’ll defend to my death, I must always speak out about its constant scapegoating. Of course if you want a happy life you can’t watch TV all the time but it can certainly fit into a happy life especially if you watch with friends and family.

  4. David
    David says:

    Ashley — word. I have a friend who’s currently suffering from extreme stress, and he’s discovered that right now, the only thing that gives him a break is watching a TV episode.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Penelope, what’s your experience with fame? How do you feel, now that you’re famous? Please share. Thank you!

  6. BrightMinds
    BrightMinds says:

    It’s always been a strange one for me – who on earth would want fame and fortune?

    If you’ve got a family with kids and you’re financially secure, what more could you possibly want?

  7. SATs Papers
    SATs Papers says:

    I don’t normally resort to ancient Greek quotations but…

    “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Epicurus.

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