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The social science guide to picking a career you'll love

What the research says about how to find a fulfilling job.

Photos: Getty Images. Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox

What the best scientific research tells us is that we often look for the wrong things in job searches: What we think will make us happy at work is very different from what will actually make us happy.

It’s little wonder, then, that more than half of Americans are unhappy with their jobs.

So here’s a summary of what really does and doesn’t matter for job satisfaction, according to the evidence.

1) Don’t worry too much about the salary

Research suggests that obsessing over your paycheck is misguided: a meta-analysis of around 100 studies found that there’s only a very weak relationship between pay and job satisfaction.

The evidence on how money affects happiness in general is mixed. Recent surveys of hundreds of thousands of people found that richer people are more satisfied with their lives overall, but only very slightly — and above an income of around $40,000, pay had no effect at all on day-to-day happiness. Above this level, other factors — health, relationships, and sense of purpose — are much more important.

Moreover, focusing too much on pay distracts your attention from these other important factors. Timothy Judge, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that if you ultimately care about having a job that’s satisfying, “you would be better off weighing other job attributes higher than pay.”

So while more money might make you a bit happier at work, as long as you’ve got your daily needs covered, it’s not a particularly important factor and deserves much less attention than we give it.

2) Don’t do an easy job

For most people, mental challenge is crucial for being satisfied. It’s tempting to think that an easy job is a great job: You’ll never be stressed, and you’ll always be doing well. But in reality, you’ll probably just be bored. You’ll never have a real sense of achievement at the end of the day.

Of course, you don’t want a job where you constantly feel out of your depth either. The sweet spot is where the demands placed on you match your abilities.

There are actually a couple of tests that measure the importance of mental challenge for particular individuals: the need for cognition and growth needs scales. And it may not trump other factors for all people. But the evidence is pretty strong that easy work isn’t the path to lasting job satisfaction for anyone.

3) Don’t just follow your interests

There’s very little evidence that focusing on your interests is a good path to satisfying work, despite decades of research. This is pretty surprising — a natural approach to choosing a career is something like “figure out what you’re interested in, and then find a job that allows you to do that.” It seems intuitively obvious that interests matter: that if you’re really interested in psychology, say, you’d be happier doing psychology research than working in an investment bank.

So why does research suggest interest isn’t that important? One reason is that our interests change faster than we expect them to: Multiple psychology studies have shown that we’re bad at predicting what we’ll enjoy in the future. What you find interesting as a 22-year-old graduate might not keep you engaged 10 years later. A second possibility is that though our interests do matter somewhat, we put greater weight on them relative to other factors. Even if you’re really interested in psychology, a research job that involves working with people you hate would still make you miserable.

4) Do work that’s engaging

What really matters is what you do in your job day by day, hour by hour. It’s surprisingly easy to neglect this.

Engaging work draws you in and holds your attention, giving you a sense of flow. Have you ever spent an hour editing a spreadsheet and felt the time drag on, or found an hour playing a computer game passes in what seems like no time at all? Computer games are designed to be engaging, while office admin is far from it.

Researchers have identified four key factors to finding work engaging:

That said, playing computer games is not the key to a fulfilling life (and not just because you won’t get paid). That’s because it’s also important to …

5) Do work that helps others

There’s strong agreement within positive psychology that having a “sense of meaning” is crucial for overall happiness. Unsurprisingly, this translates to the workplace: according to hundreds of studies, feeling that your work contributes to an important cause is one of the most important factors for job satisfaction. Other research in psychology suggests that helping others is one of the most reliable ways to boost your own mood. In one study, students who were asked to perform five “acts of kindness” a week for a six-week period showed a significant boost in well-being compared to those who did not.

Switching to a more meaningful career doesn’t necessarily mean working for a charity — there are lots of ways to make a difference, including research, politics, journalism, and entrepreneurship.

Even if you can’t easily jump ship, there are other ways to make your work more meaningful. You could try volunteering — research has shown that people who volunteer are consistently happier and healthier than those who don’t. Or you might choose to donate a portion of your salary to charity: There’s a growing body of evidence that giving has benefits for the giver as well as the receiver.

6) Do work you’re good at

According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, a leading happiness researcher, achievement (or accomplishment) is a central component of well-being. Most of us are constantly striving for a sense of achievement and feel pretty great when it comes around, like when you finally solve a problem you’ve been struggling with for weeks, complete a large and challenging project, or master a new skill.

This means it’s important your skills are well-matched to the job you’re doing — evidence suggests that the greater the mismatch between your skills and your job, the less happy you’ll be. What this doesn’t mean is that you should only do things you’re already good at. There’s no sense of achievement in succeeding at the same simple task over and over again — achievement requires learning, developing, and pushing yourself.

One way to find work that suits your skills but still challenges you is to use your “signature strengths.” Signature strengths are things like creativity, perseverance, love of learning and leadership — there’s a full list of all 24 signature strengths here, developed by Seligman. Seligman suggests that most people have three to seven “core” strengths among these lists, and research suggests that recognizing and applying these strengths at work leads to increased satisfaction. You can take a test to find out your signature strengths here.

7) Find supportive colleagues

The people we’re around can have a huge impact on our mood. So next time you’re considering a job and are not sure about your future colleagues, remember: These are the people you’re going to be spending (at least) eight hours a day with, five days a week. Choosing a job based on how much you like our potential colleagues might sound silly, but it’s not a bad plan.

Close personal relationships are one of the most important factors for well-being. Feeling like we’re socially supported at work can make us less stressed, by acting as a buffer against difficult times. Studies also suggest that people who get on with their colleagues perceive their work to be more meaningful.

Research shows that perhaps the most important factor is whether you can get help from your colleagues when you run into problems.

8) Don’t ignore the negatives

Everything above is important. But if there are significant negative aspects to your job, they could be enough to outweigh many other positive factors.

Research finds that all of the following tend to be linked to job dissatisfaction:

Although these sound obvious, it’s easy to overlook them when choosing a job.

9) Finally, don’t assume finding the perfect job is going to be easy

You might not love your first job — or your second, or your third — and that’s normal. Finding a career you love isn’t straightforward, and relying on a single factor isn’t enough, as the length of this list shows!

Research in psychology suggests that we’re generally not that great at predicting how happy things will make us in the future: Our predictions tend to be biased by how we feel right now, and to focus only on the most obvious, essential features. While a large starting bonus makes that job in the city seem very appealing right now, those long hours you haven’t thought about might eventually start to take their toll.

Understanding the science behind job satisfaction will certainly give you a leg up in finding a career you love. But ultimately, the best way to find out whether you’ll enjoy doing something is just to try it. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t find the perfect job immediately, and don’t be afraid to try many different things to find what works for you.