So you’re off to college to spend a lot of time and money getting into a line of work that will make you happy. But what actually does make people happy while working? Not always what we think.


First, let’s talk about that unpleasant subject, money. As polls constantly show, many people think they would be happier if they made more money. But a fair amount of research has been done on whether money buys happiness. Yes, it does—but mainly when it relieves practical worries without adding new ones.[1] You need money to pay the dentist, the grocer, the auto garage, and the rent/mortgage, for example. But, after that, the pursuit of more money might come at the expense of happiness.

As G. E. Miller puts it, in a pro and con discussion with himself,

Yes: Having money frees you from the stress of not having money and wondering how you will pay things in the past (if you have debt), present, and future. Being free of this worry can add to your happiness.

No: Money only relieves stress up to the level of covering your basic needs. Once basic needs are covered, no further happiness is gained. Additionally, having a lot of money can actually lead to further stress because you become worried about how to manage, preserve, and grow the money.


What about getting a promotion? Most people say they would like a promotion. But we must first consider the Peter Principle. Laurence J. Peter (1919–1990) was a Canadian professor of education who noticed, while working at a Montreal school board, that a huge problem was created by the following practice: promoting a gifted teacher to department head. A gifted chemistry teacher is then relieved of most of his classroom duties, for example, and put in charge of ordering supplies, and organizing and chairing meetings—which he perhaps does badly, if he does them at all. According to Peter, “In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence,” or in proverbial terms, “The cream rises until it sours.”[2] So promotion is not necessarily the way of happiness in the workplace either.

It is worth noting that the Peter Principle had a major impact on the mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Josh Clark, reflecting on FEMA head Michael D. Brown’s widely criticized performance when co-ordinating disaster relief, writes,[3]

Brown was the victim of a poor promotion. Put simply, he had risen to a job with responsibilities that he couldn’t fulfill. Before his role as FEMA director, Brown served as the commissioner of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association. He excelled in that position, and as such, was promoted by President Bush into a role with greater responsibilities: that of FEMA director…

Brown was vilified by the media, but it’s difficult not to commiserate with him. He was good at his previous job, and—as is dictated by the American Dream—when offered a position with more prestige, salary and potential for growth, he took it. The person who gave him the job had faith in his abilities, so why shouldn’t he take the job? But Brown proves that a promotion isn’t always a good thing.

Well, if money and promotion are no guarantees of job happiness, we could ask, who is—generally speaking—happy with their job?

Overall Happiness By Job

Different surveys come up with different results, but careful study of them reveals a general pattern. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index offers the following information from a survey of nearly 101,000 working adults:

Occupation and overall well-being

#1 Business Owner 72.5
#2 Professional 71.5
#3 Manager/Executive 70.9
#4 Farming/Forestry 67.8
#5 Sales 67.6
#6 Clerical 66.1
#7 Construction 65.0
#8 Installation 64.4
#9 Service 64.0
#10 Transportation/Manufacturing 62.6/62.1

Note: Scores are based on respondents’ answers to six categories of questions about work and life quality.

Sue Shellenbarger notes,[4] commenting on this index,

Business owners may seem unlikely winners. About half of the nation’s full-time small businesses typically fail within five years of start-up, and the rate has risen in the recession, says William Dennis, a senior research fellow with the National Federation of Independent Business Research Foundation. They are more likely to work extremely long hours than people in any other occupation group, other Gallup research shows…

At the bottom of the heap, transportation and manufacturing workers scored lowest on well-being. These occupations tend to foster conditions Niosh has identified as contributors to unhealthy stress: lack of control or participation in decision-making, conflicting or unclear job expectations, and hectic tasks with little inherent meaning.

Business owners, of course, are usually people who want to make their own decisions, and take the risks—a right that, as Shellenbarger notes, is often denied to the unhappiest people in the survey. So, the greatest source of happiness? Just own the business. A whole sector of unhappiness is created when you have someone over you who suddenly makes unreasonable demands, has big personal problems that you cannot successfully—or even decently—address, or is subject to a union you cannot sue that likewise makes unreasonable demands. If you can just get your job done, pestered by mosquitoes, that’s enough trouble for one life.

Job Satisfaction

This subject was studied in a comprehensive University of Chicago study:[5]

Across all occupations, on average, 47 percent of people said they were very satisfied with their jobs and 33 percent said they were very happy. The top three jobs for satisfaction were clergy (87 percent reporting being very satisfied), firefighters (80 percent) and physical therapists (78 percent). Other top jobs, in which more than 60 percent of the respondents said they were very satisfied were education administrators, painters and sculpters, teachers, authors, psychologists, special education teachers, operating engineers, office supervisors and security and financial services salespersons…

The least satisfying dozen jobs are mostly low-skill, manual and service occupations, especially involving customer service and food/beverage preparation and serving.

Top Occupations in Job Satisfaction

#1 Clergy 87.2%
#2 Firefighters 80.1%
#3 Physical Therapists 78.1%
#4 Authors 74.2%
#5 Special Education Teachers 70.1%
#6 Teachers 69.2%
#7 Education Administrators 68.4%
#8 Painter, Sculptors, Related 67.3%
#9 Psychologists 66.9%
#10 Security & Financial Services Salespersons 65.4%

These people are happy with their work for different reasons. Clergy are happy because they want to help people, and often do, and have a fair amount of authority in their own church (not always true of the employees of a public social agency). Firefighters want to save lives and are honored for that. Teachers want to open the doorways of the mind. Artists and authors want to communicate a message they feel is important to others. All of the people on the list are doing something helpful for which they are recognized. So that is a clue. But now, what about the bottom of the list:

Bottom Occupations in Job Satisfaction

#10 Waiters/Servers 27.0%
#9 Bartenders 26.4%
#8 Freight, Stock, & Material Handlers 25.8%
#7 Roofers 25.3%
#6 Furniture/Home Furnishing Salespersons 25.2%
#5 Cashiers 25.0%
#4 Apparel Clothing Salespersons 23.9%
#3 Hand Packers and Packagers 23.7%
#2 Food Preparers, Misc. 23.6%
#1 Laborers, Except Construction 21.4%

Well, many of these people have good reasons for dissatisfaction. Roofers can end up in a wheelchair or the morgue for a salary only a fraction of that of an executive who takes no physical risks. When the food at a lunch counter is inferior, many blame the waiter, but he did not prepare it, though he feels the outcome in reduced tips. The grocery cashier is blamed for the lineup at the checkout, even though she has no hand in a dispute over pricing that requires her to call the supervisor. In other words, professions that help people are seen as rewarding when they are socially rewarded with praise for those factors over which employees have control, rather than criticized over factors for which they have little or none.


So from what we have seen, it is not money or promotion that create happiness in the workplace, but rather control over one’s own workspace and recognition of the nature and value of one’s work.

One finding worth noting is that job satisfaction in the United States has been on the decline, as noted in 2010 by Phil Izzo in the Wall Street Journal:

A Conference Board survey of 5,000 U.S. households showed just 45% of respondents say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61% in 1987, the first year in which the survey was conducted.

This may well be due to economic uncertainty. If you don’t know whether you will even have the job next month, your happiness with the job may decline considerably, even if you were happy to begin with.

Keep all these things in mind as you finish your education and look for a job. The things that we think will make us happy are not always the things that actually make us happy.


1. G. E. Miller, “Can Money Buy Happiness? 5 Arguments for (and Against),” Something Finance (19 January 2009)

2. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (Harper Perennial, 1998).

3. See also Josh Clark, “How the Peter Principle Works,” How Stuff Works.

4. Sue Shellenbarger, “Plumbing for Joy? Be Your Own Boss” (Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2009).

5. “Looking for satisfaction and happiness in a career? Start by choosing a job that helps others” (media release, April 17, 2007)

6. Phil Izzo, “Americans Grow Less and Less Satisfied at Work,” January 5, 2010.