Why The Happiest People Have The Hardest Jobs

Happiness is not about working the hardest; it’s about having the most challenging work. Harvard prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains.

Why The Happiest People Have The Hardest Jobs

“The happiest people I know are dedicated to dealing with the most difficult problems,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes for HBR. Whether reversing schools’ struggles, making unsafe water potable, or helping the terminally ill, “they face the seemingly worst of the world with a conviction that they can do something about it and serve others.”


Kanter pulls in a number of anecdotes, including that of her friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Goodman. Upset by the care her dying mother received, Goodman left her syndicated columnist gig to start The Conversation Project, which aims to get every family to talk about death and end-of-life care. While Kanter doesn’t quote Goodman in the piece, we can infer that Goodman is doing emotionally fulfilling work–which, as positive psychology tells us, is a key to enduring happiness, as opposed to the fleeting nature of pleasure.

A meaningful, happiness-generating career, then, will include a sense of engagement–or even devotion–to the work one does. And while engagement is a predictor of success on a global level, less than half of American workers have it.

The role of money

Money isn’t what motivates these high achievers, Kanter writes; instead, engaged people pursue mastery, membership, and meaning. Money was a distant fourth.

Let’s be clear: money matters plenty–if you don’t have enough to feel secure, you’ll act like an alligator. But as research suggests, once you clear the income thresholds of $50,000 to $70,000 a year, the cash-to-happiness correlation levels off.

“Money acted as a scorecard, but it did not get people up-and-at ’em for the daily work,” Kanter observes, “nor did it help people go home every day with a feeling of fulfillment.”

But fulfillment doesn’t have hockey-stick growth. Kanter talks about the corps members of City Year who are working with at-risk students and seeing improvements and problems come in waves. But progress “isn’t linear,” she says–it may only be apparent after many long days, like when a D student raises his hand.


In the office, on purpose

So, in our work, we need to be mindful of cultivating mastery of our skills, give our people a sense of membership, and look for where we can find meaning from what we’re doing.

“It’s as though we all have two jobs,” Kanter says, “our immediate tasks and the chance to make a difference.”

The Happiest People Pursue the Most Difficult Problems

[Image: Flickr user Bob Vonderau]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.