The Happiness Factor in Choosing a Career

Choosing a career based on what other people enjoy is a very tricky business. Your career ideas may not match with what most people think. But statistically, you can get a sense of what seems to be bringing people more happiness at work. Looking at that might point you in some good directions and offer career help.

To find that out, you can turn to a career survey by the University of Chicago from 1988 to 2006, the most comprehensive survey ever to examine satisfaction and happiness at work. What did they find?

Less than half, or 47 percent of people said they were very satisfied with their jobs and even less reported they were very happy—only one-third.

“People looking for jobs that bring satisfaction and happiness should concentrate on professions that focus primarily on serving other people,” summarized the University of Chicago’s website

“The most satisfying jobs are mostly professions, especially those involving caring for, teaching, and protecting others and creative pursuits,” said Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey (GSS) at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Specifically, clergy were the highest percentage of very satisfied as well as the highest percentage of very happy people at work.

Professions with lower social prestige such as roofing (a mere 14% very happy and 25% very satisfied with their work) and some manual labor fared poorly in these measures generally. But physicians and lawyers were not in the top group, either, perhaps due to the stress in their lines of work.

So what does this tell you?

Not much in one sense—your career ideas and dreams are yours. Letting statistical norms define what you want to do in career choosing is very limiting and damaging. After all, even among the roofers, some were very happy. That happy roofer could be you if that’s what you love to do.

But there is something fundamental about the conclusions too. Service–doing something that has a positive impact on others. Creativity–having a chance to use your own skills in fresh, nonroutine ways. Social prestige–feeling appreciated. These are often important in people’s career choices. The key, I would suggest, is that you can see most jobs and careers as being of service without having to be in a “helping”profession like clergy or teacher. If what you are doing helps others, it can feel meaningful and be of service. If you have some chance to improve whatever you are doing–incluidng working in shipping or being a roofer–then you can use your creativity. And the ultimate sense of prestige and appreciation CAN come from within and from those you most love, rather than what society has decided.

In short, the study is interesting and helpful, if you don’t take it too literally. After all, we don’t all need to be clergy or avoid becoming roofers.

Need help determining how to choose a career? Contact me for more ideas and info about career coaching or check out Guide to Lifework or the other books available through this site.

© 2008 Leonard Lang




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