What makes a job satisfying? Is it salary? Title? Perks? A fancy office? While these might be the things we initially look at, countless studies have found those external rewards don’t keep us motivated for long. Instead, the people with the most satisfying jobs have a completely different set of qualities that they look for.
Not everyone loves their work. In fact, a 2017 study found that only 50% of people are satisfied with how they spend their days. Even worse, this number has dropped more than 10% since its peak in the late-’80s.
But still, some jobs are naturally more satisfying than others. According to a study published by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the most satisfying jobs in the U.S. are:
- Physical therapists
- Education administrators
- Painter, sculptors, related
- Special education teachers
- Operating engineers
Before we get into the specifics of the world’s most satisfying jobs, let’s look at a few qualities they don’t share.
Following your passion doesn’t necessarily lead to job satisfaction
First, let’s get a common misconception out of the way. At some point in your life, you’ve undoubtedly heard someone tell you to follow your passion. While their intentions might have been in the right place, their advice wasn’t.
Here’s why: Most career advice starts with asking you to write down a list of what you want from a job or your passions, like “working with animals” or “being outdoors.” But while imagining your ideal job might seem to make sense, research has shown that we’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
According to research from psychologists at Stanford and Yale-NUS, telling someone to “follow their passion” can be extremely limiting. Rather than being motivated by their passions, the study found that people who believed they only had to find the thing they were interested in ended up less satisfied and were more likely to lose interest in jobs quickly.
Money alone won’t make you satisfied either
So if not passion, then what? For most people, the next obvious answer is money. And while yes, making more can make you happier, it only works to a certain point.
When Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman studied the effects of household income on happiness, he discovered that beyond an income of around $50,000 a year, people felt no noticeable change in daily happiness.
But how can that be? One of the biggest stressors in our lives is dealing with money. And so it only makes sense that we would be more satisfied with work that helps alleviate that stress. Right?
Again, only to a point. In Kahneman’s research, he found that once your base needs are met–housing, food, transportation–people didn’t report being any happier or less stressed with a household income over a certain threshold ($75,000 a year). Beyond that, more money doesn’t add to the satisfaction people feel on the job.
With passion and money out the window, what is it then that makes the jobs we listed, and others, satisfying? According to multiple studies on happiness and workplace satisfaction, it all comes down to finding work with these six qualities:
1. Work that is engaging
When author and 80,000 hours founder Benjamin Todd reviewed the findings of 60 studies on job satisfaction, one of the main qualities that appeared over and over was engagement.
However, “engagement” is one of those words that is hard to pin down in a concrete sense. Here’s how Todd explains it:
Engaging work is work that draws you in, holds your attention, and gives you a sense of flow. It’s the reason an hour spent editing a spreadsheet can feel like pure drudgery, while an hour playing a computer game can feel like no time at all: Computer games are designed to be as engaging as possible.
In other words, engagement is flow–a state of effortlessness where your skills, attention, and focus perfectly match the challenge at hand. This means having freedom to perform the work how and when you want to. Clear tasks and goals with defined start and endpoints. And constant feedback on how you’re doing.
2. Work that benefits other people
For years, philosophers and parents have told us it’s better to give than to receive. And nowhere does this statement ring more true than when it comes to job satisfaction.
There’s a growing body of evidence that shows helping others is a key ingredient for life satisfaction. People who volunteer are less depressed and healthier. A randomized study showed that performing a random act of kindness makes the giver happier than when receiving something. (The researchers call this a “helper’s high.“)
This is nothing new. In a study of workers across five generations, one of the most common statements around job satisfaction was “helping others.”
Just look at our list of satisfying jobs again. Most of these have some altruistic quality to them. And even more than that, they connect to a higher purpose–whether working in the church or helping students or those in pain.
3. Work you’re good at (and feel valued for)
It’s hard to feel satisfied by your work if it’s constantly a struggle. Yet while being skilled at your job helps you feel more valued, its greater quality is in allowing you to negotiate for other things that bring you life satisfaction.
This could mean more flexible working hours to spend time with family, working on more meaningful and challenging projects, or being put in a position to receive accolades and admiration from people you respect.
This isn’t to say you should only do work you’re good at. But having the potential to be good and get better at it is an important factor in work that is satisfying.
4. Flexibility in how and where you work
There’s a reason that the bottom of the list of satisfying jobs included work like laborers, waiters, retail, and cashiers.
Not only are these jobs usually low-paid and often involve manual labor or even being in an unsafe work environment, but they also have little to no flexibility.
In a study of 1,500 working professionals, the startup Werk discovered that 96% of employees said they need flexibility, while only 47% reported having access to it.
Flexibility allows for workers to create balance and deal with all the other things happening in their lives. Having a say in how, where, and when you work has been found to increase engagement, productivity, happiness, and focus.
5. A lack of major negatives
While most of the things we’re looking at are requirements for job satisfaction, what’s missing from your work is just as important.
Some of the biggest sources of work dissatisfaction include:
- A long commute
- Long or unpredictable working hours
- Feeling unrecognized (through pay or praise)
- Feeling like you’re in danger (either physically or with job insecurity)
Any of these qualities can quickly turn an otherwise satisfying job into a nightmare.
6. The chance for meaningful collaboration
Who you work for (and with) can be just as important as the work you do. And while you don’t have to be friends with your coworkers, research shows that it is important to know that you can get help from your colleagues when you run into problems.
In fact, a major meta-analysis found “social support” was among the top predictors of job satisfaction.
Your coworkers can be either sources of help or stress in the workplace. And feeling that you have a genuine connection and can ask for help when you need it will make your working hours feel more satisfying.
We all want to feel good about the work we do. But it isn’t always easy. Job satisfaction is deeply personal and difficult to quantify.
So while this list can help you identify qualities that will make your working days better, it’s up to you to look through it and find where your job is missing the mark. Are you feeling engaged? Are you helping others? Do you have flexibility and support? Is there some major negative that you can change? A little change in one of these areas can make a huge impact on how you feel at the end of the day.