Nine Reasons Why That High-Paying Job Is Making You Miserable

Depending on your personality, a fat paycheck might even make you less happy when these other motives go unfulfilled.

Nine Reasons Why That High-Paying Job Is Making You Miserable
Photo: Jeremy Beadle via Unsplash Photo: Jeremy Beadle via Unsplash

Money. We all want more of it–or do we? According to psychological research, the answer is complicated. We all have different motives depending on our personalities, and while money certainly matters, it can even make us feel worse about our careers when those other basic drives are neglected.


When Cash Doesn’t Cut It, And Why

First, even when money does motivate, it doesn’t necessarily boost satisfaction. That’s why the correlation between pay and job satisfaction is close to zero. Second, money isn’t easy to come by for all but a privileged few; earning it often takes considerable effort and compromise, and many people who want to be wealthy (not everyone does) might not be able to do what’s required to get there even if given the chance (which many aren’t).

Third, our relationship with money is far from rational. When we’re paid to do work we already find interesting, we actually enjoy it less. And many of us would rather get a 10% salary bump if our colleagues get none than a 20% raise if our colleagues get 30%.

Employers know that money isn’t the only motivator, but it happens to be one of the easiest carrots to dangle. As a result, lots of people wind up taking jobs that they probably shouldn’t. The fact is that we’re all driven by a wide range of psychological needs, and money usually doesn’t satisfy most of them. One reason compensation so often overshadows them is because we tend to attach value judgments to certain motivations: Those driven by team spirit, for instance, are usually viewed more favorably than those who seek power.

Yet no drive is inherently “good” or “bad.” They’re just the factors that motivate us, in degrees that vary from one person to the next. How you choose to fulfill a certain motive may reflect on your character or ethics, but the mere fact that you possess certain drives more than others is simply a feature of your personality.

With that in mind, here are a few of the other common drives that no high-paying job can fulfill. If you’re highly motivated by one or several of them, a generous raise or lucrative role probably won’t make you much happier.

1. Power

People strongly motivated by opportunities to gain power and influence are interested in being successful, but money isn’t necessarily the best measure of their success. Being in charge of others, managing teams and organizations, and making an impact all matter to these people more than a big paycheck.


2. Recognition

People with a strong need for recognition need to be in high-visibility roles in order to feel fulfilled. No matter how much their jobs pay, they’ll only be satisfied if their contributions are praised by others, and when they feel valued and appreciated. Prestigious jobs are more fulfilling than highly paid ones.

3. Hedonism

To psychologists, this term doesn’t mean overindulgence in pleasure; it’s simply the degree to which people are motivated by experiences. Some people value jobs that are fun and intrinsically motivating. They want to work on things they find interesting. These people respond especially well to jobs where there’s a strong “culture fit.” Put a hedonistic individual in a high-paying but boring or meaningless job, and they’re likely to struggle.

4. Affiliation

People with a strong need for affiliation like jobs that demand a lot of socializing and networking. Interacting with lots of people–work colleagues, associates, old and new clients, sales prospects–is the ideal. No amount of money will be enough to engage high-affiliation types if their roles are lonely or leave them isolated. Equally, if people with these personalities work in sociable environments but feel left out–excluded from the main groups or teams–they’ll suffer no matter how nice their paychecks might be.

5. Tradition

Some people thrive in roles that are rule-bound and hierarchical. They enjoy following a clear set of principles and respecting valuable lessons from the way things have been done in the past. By temperament, not everybody can or should be a “disruptor,” adapting continuously to breakneck change; some jobs require routine and continuity, and make great fits for these personality types. So even if their jobs pay well, they’ll struggle to perform well in roles where the status quo is always changing. People motivated by tradition won’t be happy having to break established rules or innovate constantly.

6. Security

People with a high need for security are happiest when their jobs and careers are well-planned and predictable. They like to know what the next few years will bring, and prefer the certainty of a lower salary to the possibility of a higher one. A volatile startup job might be traumatic for them, even if it brings the potential to earn big.

7. Aesthetics

Some people need their work to fulfill a creative outlet, and no amount of cash will make up for it if they’re in a role that suppresses their curiosity and imagination. Likewise, people with high aesthetic drives usually prefer to earn less if it means getting a chance to do original, high-quality work, rather than earning more to do something conventional or dull.


8. Science

People with a high need for scientific inquiry thrive in jobs that demand analytical and data-driven decisions. Like creatives, they they’re investigative by nature–they need opportunities to explore, experiment, test ideas, and develop intellectually. Paying them more to do un-inquisitive, rote work will make them unhappy.

9. Altruism

Finally, people highly driven by altruism need to help others and improve their communities. They’ll be most fulfilled if they can do pro-social work in philanthropic and selfless roles. High-paying jobs will only interest altruistically motivated people if it means they can make a difference in the world, or give some of their earnings away to causes they care about.

Ultimately, it’s true that money is a universal incentive; few people would work if they didn’t get paid. But that isn’t the whole story. While getting paid badly can be demotivating for anyone, getting paid well is only motivating for a handful of people–and even then, usually only when at least a few other psychological needs are also fulfilled in the process.

If you want to find out what your needs are, this quick values assessment can point you in the right direction–and possibly away from the allure of a fat paycheck.