The connection between a good job and happiness is overrated

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One of my favorite topics is the science of happiness, which academia calls positive psychology. I love this topic because most of us think of our careers in terms of happiness. That is, we look for work that makes us happy. Positive psychology turns this hunt into a science. And then tells us to look elsewhere for happiness.

I was talking to Richard Florida, about his current research, which blends positive psychology and economic development, and he summarized what I have read in many other places as well: “Your level of optimism and quality of relationships impact your level of happiness more than your job does.” What this means is that asking a job to solve our unhappiness problems is asking too much of a job.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to focus on optimism and relationships so that we don’t feel so much pressure choosing our jobs. To this end, I was excited to see three different introductions to the psychology of happiness in the last month.

The New York Times magazine ran a long summary of the positive psycholgoy movement, titled Happiness 101 (subscription). For those of you who don’t know much about this movement, the article is a good primer.

Martin Seligman, founder of the movement and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Postive psychology is not only about maximizing personal happiness but also about embracing civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity.”

This is not small stuff, but it’s the stuff that is scientifically proven to lead to a happy life. So when you think about what job to take, realize that this list of things that affect your sense of well-being is not overwhelmingly connected to the idea of doing what you love at work.

One of the most interesting parts of the article is where Daniel Gilbert, the man whose book on this topic was a bestseller, disses the movement as cultish, “I just wish it didn’t look so much like religion,” he says.

It does look like religion, because positive psychology promotes things religion promotes, like showing gratitude at the end of each day. But really, what this tells us is that the things that make us happy are much more basic than doing interesting work with interesting people.

Sonja Lyubomirsky says being happy comes from the way we think at our very core – and that thinking shapes the work we do. Not the other way around.

The Economist jumps on the positive psychology bandwagon in the article, “Economics Discovers Its Feelings.” This report contains some very practical advice. For example:

The traits of work that makes someone happy:
1. stretches a person without defeating him
2. provides clear goals
3. provides unambiguous feedback
4. provides a sense of control

But don’t panic if you can’t find a job like this, because when these traits do not exist in a job, people will often figure out how to add them back in and give the job meaning in their lives. For example, “hairdressers often see themselves as the confidants of clients they like, and they will fire clients they don’t…And there are janitors at a hospital who held patients’ hands, brightening their day as well as scrubbing their rooms.”

Before you smirk at this rationalizing behavior, realize that Gilbert says it actually does create genuine happiness in a job. Check out this video of Gilbert speaking at the TED Conference (thanks, Dennis). Gilbert’s a fun speaker, so it’s worth watching the whole twenty minutes.

Gilbert also says that even if things are not going well, humans have a deep ability to make ourselves think they’re going well. Which is why Gilbert told me that people should not ask other people if they like their jobs, because almost everyone says they do and it has no bearing on how good the job it is.

However he says that this rejiggered feeling of happiness is just as deep and good a feeling as the happiness when something really is going very well.

One of his pet topics is that what we think will make us happy rarely does. (When I spoke with him he told me this is the reason we should not sit at home and try to guess what career to pick, but instead we should just get off the chair and start trying stuff.)

Gilbert’s research shows that while we think being a paraplegic would be very bad and winning the lottery would be very good, three months after the event, neither really affects your happiness. And this goes back to happiness being a result of how we think at our very core — what Seligman calls our level of optimism. (If you are not buying this, watch the video.)

So you don’t have to make yourself crazy about finding the perfect job. All that stuff about how you need to find a job that you love is overstated. “Some people don’t seek fulfillment through their work and are still happy in life. All options are legitimate and possible,” says Amy Wrzesniewski professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

You need to find a job that meets those four basic standards for a decent job. But our brain is hard-wired to figure out how to enjoy it once you get there. So maybe you can lighten up about choosing your next job. There’s good research to show that a wide range of jobs can accommodate you in a way where you can find happiness. And there’s good research to show that finding “the perfect” job will not be the thing to make you happy.

78 replies
  1. Tom Morgan
    Tom Morgan says:


    I can assume from your post that when work is getting me down the real root cause is my attitude and relationships. So I need to stop being such a workaholic and spend more quality time with my family and friends.

    I can remember being more optimistic in the past than I do today so how do I recapture that attitude? I have had several challenging projects over the past few years that required several international trips which seems to have worn me down.

    * * * * * *


    Try reading the book Learned Optimism, by Daniel Seligman. Good place to start.


  2. Ben Casnocha
    Ben Casnocha says:

    I just wanted to leave a comment since I know Chris Yeh won’t be far behind. He’s a master at this stuff — definitely pick his brain on this!

    Keep up the good posting, Penelope.

  3. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    Awesome post…what a tool for picking out nuggets of truth among all the advice on how to be happy. Hearing happiness (or a job, or whatever) “is what you make of it” isn’t very actionable. I have always believed the most stressful thing I will ever experience is the sense of being in the path of a speeding train — seeing a project which I knew was bound to fall apart around me, and having no control over that.

    And, what a great roadmap for how to make things better. I’m 0 for 4 (of the 4 factors for job happiness) right now, and who knows? probably not batting even .500 in my goal to make it a good place for my staff to work.

    But, I work for a good company with the potential to be great, and maybe this post can help me leave it better than I found it.

    Penelope, I also want you to know that I was reading your items about Depression At Work, and I believe they literally saved my life. All I can say, is thanks, and please keep up with this.

    * * * * * *

    Thank you for this comment. It is so appropriate that you mention the depression-at-work topic here. Because hearing that I helped you — especially in something so hard as depression– makes me feel really good. Happiness is helping people. We know this from research, but also from our hearts.

    In any workplace situation, you often have no idea which part of your job will let you help people in a very meaningful way. But you should keep trying in the best ways you know how, and you will find happiness in that. This is a good example. -Penelope



  4. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    I am working with my team to develop goals for 2007. I’m actually going to take the list from the Economist with me – #1, 2 & 4 are ones that need to be considered when setting the goals, and I need to work on #3. (Sometimes it’s easier to be ambiguous then to hurt someone’s feelings/feeling of self-worth… so I need to make sure that I’m not watering down the truth.)

    Happiness at work is hard, and a lot of the time, I will settle for “not miserable”.

    * * * * * * *


    This you give a good blueprint for how to motivate a team. I hope lots of managers read this and follow your lead.


  5. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Penelope — I discovered your writing, and then your blog, not too long ago, and it’s become a favorite. By my bedstand is a copy of Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, because you mentioned it not too long ago. And now this. Thank you so much.

    I so enjoyed Dan Gilbert’s video, and found myself nodding along vigorously to the final statements by Adam Smith. I work in academia and lately I’ve been getting myself in a bit of hot water by not laughing at the boss’ sexist jokes, or by not playing the general lying game. It’s posts like yours and others that bring home a reality that I don’t feel comfortable here, I am cheating myself and my soul, and I need to move on, as hard as that may be.

    This correlates well with a recent post on Of the many earnest, and how earnest, people we may observe reading, attending lectures, studying and practicing disciplines, devoting their energies to the attainment of a liberation which is by definition unattainable, how many are not striving via the ego-concept which is itself the only barrier between what they think they are and that which they wish to become but always have been and always will be? – Why Lazurus Laughed by Wei Wu Wei

  6. paul
    paul says:

    Interesting topic, just today I was thinking about my job and how it affects my happiness. I agree that our job, or for anything else in our life is not what brings us happiness. It is us choosing to be happy and bringing that attitude to everything in our life. I choose to be happy.

  7. Eric
    Eric says:

    Its always great to see such a difficult topic being laid out in a layman’s fashion. I have been thinking long and hard about finding a job that will give me the greatest job satisfaction and have realised that there is no such thing, there will be certain unhappiness with every job and it is how we deal with it that counts, our attitude towards the job, not bringing work “luggage” back home to burden our loved ones. Work will never finish…. Remember to spend more time with our loved ones? I am still searching… in the meantime I am content with what I have… Contentment in my opinion is a very important step in the search for happiness

  8. Peter Smith
    Peter Smith says:


    Thank you for so neatly summing up the scientific reasons why 99% of lawyers are unhappy–and so unhappy that they no longer are even able to formulate an answer to the question: “are you happy?" Believe me, I’ve “been there; done that.”

    The four criteria you mention for happiness at work (stretching without defeatism; providing clear goals; unambiguous feedback; sense of control)DO NOT EXIST in my field, the practice of law–at least in law firm life.

    I’m now a headhunter and because I want my candidates to actually end up “happier” at the end of the day I spend considerable time with my candidates teaching them how to achieve these factors by taking control of their own practices, building their own networks and, basically, taking back their careers from their law firms (while staying in the firm and taking advantage of the things firms DO do well).

    Anyway, thanks for the insightful words! You’ve inspired me. I’ll definitely use your concise words when talking to my candidates in future.

    * * * * * *

    Peter, the first thing I thougt of when I read this post was, I wonder if I can link from a blog post to a comment on the blog?  Because I write so often about how most laywers are not happy working at law firms, and this would be great stuff to link to. I sure hope your comment reaches some of those students studying for the LSAT right now… 


  9. Gordon Whyte
    Gordon Whyte says:

    Interesting article Penelope, I am involved in performing due diligence on many new companies for funding, not my day time job, the main requirement I have in the founders that they believe that what they are working on will make a difference, that they have a passion for the project in it’s entirety not that this is is a “pension plan” and they will do something they like after they have made there cash, I did some research and found that off the companies I have given the thumbs up 85% of them made a succesful exit ? so my point is that you do something you like for work if you can and if not even in the role you hate look to create meaning, have you ever read any of Frankl’s work, have a read at “Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, it changed the way I thought about many things, but primarily about worklife balance…

    good article thanks..



    * * * * * *

    Gordon, this is a great time to mention the book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Thank you. Great book.

    And for people looking for a more meaningful job, you might do well to read this book, about how to get a meaningful life, before you dive into books about how to find meaning in a career.


  10. Cara
    Cara says:

    Interesting post as usual! I wonder what your thoughts are on determining whether unhappiness on the job is due to unrealistic expectations vs. a poor fit. For example, my brother has been an engineer for years even though he freely admits he has no interest or talent in the field. He’s just in it for the money. Should he change his attitude or change careers?

  11. stever
    stever says:

    i was thinking of emailing lifehacker to see if anyone had any tips on being motivated in an unmotivated job.

    This past week I’ve had a very negative attitude towards my job and, in its place I’ve been constantly distracted with negative feelings towards others around me (typical for IS people regardless..hehe).

    Thanks for the excellent post though. I really do need to focus more on community and using my gifts and talents outside the workplace on a regular basis.

  12. Lorena Hernández von Wobeser
    Lorena Hernández von Wobeser says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I’m from Cancún, México so be kind with my English.
    I knew about this site from the AI List, I work with te Appreciative Inquiry model and some ideas of the Positive Psicology.

    Do you know the book called Flow? I like the central message of the book wich is: when you use your natural talents in your job (eventhough it isnt the perfect job) you reach a Flow level wich brings happiness. The author (I dont have his name in this moment) belives happiness can be found in your job sometimes even offten than out of the job. What do you think about that?

    I also like the term resilience to name that optimism level of each person that makes you see the world better.

    Thanks for the article!


    * * * * *

    Hi, Lorena.

    Thanks for mentioning the book, Flow. It *is* totally relevant to this post — because people will be happy in their job if they can acheive flow at some points during their workday. And you make a great point that nothing in that (amazing) book says that you need to be doing the thing you love most in the world in order to achieve flow.

    Here’s a link to the book, Flow, by (the unpronounceable) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

    And I like that you bring up the word resilience. I need to think about that more. I think you’re right, Lorena, that it an important way to think about the optimist.

    Thank you for linking these ideas together.


  13. Carter Cathey
    Carter Cathey says:


    I think that people have a natural inclination to look for reasons for their unhappiness. However, I think people often don’t honestly appraise their situation. I have heard from friends over and over that they hate their jobs only to stay at them year after year after year.

    Change is difficult. It is easier to stay in a known situation than to venture into new territory. It is easier to keep the same course rather than making meaningful (even radical) changes in your life. Maybe you could live on half of what you make? Maybe you could move to a new city?

    Lastly, I think people often attach too much expectation on ‘things’ in their life to make them happy. Live to Work or Work to Live, your job can’t be everything for you. A job, even a great job, needs to be part of your life and not a substitute for the lack of one.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.


  14. los
    los says:

    Dear Penelope,

    Whilst i agree that a job alone can not bring a person happiness, i have to say that i think to an extent it depends on the job in question.
    For someone who is slightly unhappy in their job but doesn’t have to clean toilets everyday while earning a pittance, i can well understand that there are other things that can make this person happy in life.
    However, for that person cleaning the toilets or someone that has spent years studying and still, in order just to be able to survive, has to cope everyday with discrimination/racism/sexism in the work place or doing a job they are not suited to while feeling undervalued by a boss that treats them like an incapable idiot, for me that must have a profound impact on self-esteem and a person’s identity, which would seem to be a major part of being happy wouldn’t you agree?

    * * * * * *

    Totally agree. While a job cannot singularly make you happy — even a great job. A job (or lack thereof) can make you very unhappy. So the connection between jobs and happiness is overrated, but the when you talk about terrible situations you mention above, the connection between jobs and unhappiness seems reasonably on target.


  15. John Miller
    John Miller says:

    Yeah, screw jobs! I was happiest in college downing 12 packs and chasing girls.

    But seriously…I love all of the optimism, but changing jobs every year or so is horrible and there is no stability there. Where is the community or stability for a family or children if you don’t know what your life is going to be like. I understand American optimism, and trying to put a good spin on things, but comeon!!! We are all in a terrible time to have to work, lets face that fact. A few people (movie stars, sports stars, Ceos) make it, and the rest of us muddle through. Unless you have great family wealth, or great contacts, the future does not look bright for you. Just accept a life of poverty and good books and friends and deal with it.

  16. Simon
    Simon says:

    I’m 21 years old, been struggling for the past 4 years trying to figure out what i want to do with my life. Sometimes i wish i had worked harder at school and carried on my education instead of leaving to earn money straight away. I used to go down the pub with friends and they would ask me what i’m doing and every now and then i would have a new idea for a career, but i didn’t really want it…
    It’s funny how life works, society looks at life in such a way that it seems if you don’t go to university or college, you’re a failure. I sort of believed that for a few years, but not long ago i realised it’s bollocks.
    What i really want to do is travel, i’m a free spirit, i have no ties and can practically do whatever the hell i want. But it’s my attitude to finding the “perfect job” that has held me back for about 4-5 years. I havent taken advantage of whats available to me, now i can either let that get me down or just enjoy life from now on. I think we all know what the answer to that one is.


    Thank you for the blog, it helped to lift my spirit. Good to be reminded of what’s important in life… happyness.

  17. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    The kind of work that would make me happy is:
    1. easy and overpaid
    2. has clear goals, and makes it clear that I don’t have to do a lot of work

    When someone not particularly close to me asks me if I’m happy, I always say I’m happy, even if I know I’m not. It isn’t my ability to make myself think I’m doing well; it’s simply lying, to stop someone else from asking questions.

  18. natasha emeru
    natasha emeru says:

    Having recently lost the man I loved more than anything or anyone in this world to his career I say do what the hell you like. Your a long time dead. Money doesn’t matter. Happiness does. I don’t think anyone is ever completely satisfied. In personal relationships or careers. Its our negative lesson of “constant improvement” that gets drummed into us from a young age that ruins everything. I think you have to choose what’s more important to you. In your dying moments do u want to think of all the money you’ve made and all the respect and authority and fulfillment you’ve gained from your career or do you want to die happy in the knowledge you are missed, as a person, as yourself, for qualities that aren’t appreciated in your trade, for the tiny subleties that make you, you. No ones their true selves at work. Don’t live the lie. Don’t wake up one day alone. You can’t have everything, its a choice you make. Pick wisely.

  19. Maureen Mccoshen
    Maureen Mccoshen says:

    This is a virgin voyage in the blogging space. I had read your book last year, and I read your columns in the WI state journal. Your column today was outstanding. You are so right, “You don’t always have to do what you love”.
    Amen to you sister!
    I am a 50 year old white middle class (is there such a thing anymore?) single mom with 3 daughters in college. (In case your are looking for demographics). If there is something you have written or have referenced for folks like me who have been there, done that, but still want to learn new things and explore career options would you be willing to share that with me?
    This isn’t so scary afterall. I am your biggest fan.
    Taking the high road,

  20. Colin
    Colin says:

    Penelope, you should also remind everyone that we are dead tomorrow, and all this preparation trying to land the best job possible or find something that will make one happy, instead of working to find one’s own nature and what a person does best in an imperfect world … ah, well, you get the point. It’s all conversation anyway.

  21. Shawn Walton
    Shawn Walton says:

    I changed the wording a bit but:

    The traits of work that makes me happy:
    1. It stretches me without defeating me
    2. It provides clear goals
    3. It provides unambiguous feedback
    4. It provides a sense of control

    A. I feeling a little defeated right now
    B. My Goals and the Company I work for Goal’s are too far apart
    C. I get plenty of feedback but more towards one direction
    D. I haven't felt like I had any control since I started

    Working in the nuclear industry is very demanding. The recent storms have created an even greater challenge to protect the plant, personnel and the public. The hours are normally demanding and recently they have been to the max. In August last year, I was unexpectedly offered a job to run the department that I was supporting as an outage coordinator. I have been in the electrical field for over 20 years now but this new position has just consumed me. I love the work, may be too much. I manage a maintenance shop of 99 employees and delegating task has made this job almost unbearable. I tend to do things myself instead of delegating tasks to offers. I come in early and I stay late. I guess I feel that delegation requires me to relinquish control, which is so difficult for me because I have a high sense of personal responsibility. The Pareto Rule seems to have taken over my life: it is if 80% of my efforts only give me 20% of benefits.

    Your article came up while googling "Why people are unhappy with their Job". I find it hard to keep doing this job if it doesn't bring about some happiness or satisfaction; other than the monetary ones. (The money is all that great, I am blessed) The time away from my family is the biggest issue. My wife of nineteen years is the most caring and passionate women on the earth! I wonder sometime how she does it. My two wonderful boys ages 10 and 4 are the treasures that cannot be replaced. But I have done just that; they one that care about me the most are the ones that are being sacrificed for this job. The desk phone, my emails, my wireless and my pager are constantly asking me for something from this job.

    This is a GOOD job and I am Happy with the challenges that this job brings, not sure it is worth the cost of my family. So, even though a good job and happiness maybe over-rated by one standard, without controls in place it quickly can cause the happiness that we seek from a job to drive the very ones that you want to share that happiness with; far away.

    Thanks for the insight as I continue to look for the answer.

  22. Noelani Ioane
    Noelani Ioane says:

    Throughout this blog post I realized that there are a few things I didn’t really think about when it came to happiness. There is a part where she mentions something about a man saying it’s a bit “cultish” where its kind of like a religion, I never thought of happiness being like that and when I read I started to read on, her point is actually calming where she says it’s not that it’s like a religion but that its seems that way. People can have better lifestyle if they focus on happiness a tad more, maybe it comes off as a religion because there is supposedly a lot of effort that needs to be put in but that’s what was odd about the argument. Like she says there is a choice in happiness but people don’t have to conform to a certain form of happiness they can pick and choose what they want to be happy about at the end of the day, not like a religion where sometimes it’s a specific thing you look for. And to add to that there isn’t an amount of happiness we have to look for we can choose the amount that we are satisfied with. At the end of the day we don’t need to have a set amount of happy or what made us happy, we have more of a choice. We can be happy with the little things just as much as the larger.

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