What Actually Makes Us Happy in Our Careers?

Hint: It's not salary.

~ 4 minute read

There are thousands of articles online that try to explain what will make you happier at work. Waking up earlier, waking up later, meditating, doing 20 minute burst naps throughout the day, 50/10 minute working ratios, the list goes on and on. No matter your personal preference, you can find some research that supports why you are doing the right thing.

Yet we continue to be unhappy at work. The problem, of course, is that work is a word that is extremely complicated and nuanced. Two people working in the same job title can have completely different experiences because of their employer, experience level and personalities.

We decided to introduce career satisfaction as a concept at the beginning of 2016. The goal was to break down career happiness into components that tried to explain what actually made people happy/unhappy at work. We came up with these six dimensions as a first cut at explaining career happiness.

  • Overall Rating: Measures the general sentiment about their career
  • Personality Fit: How well their personality - things like leadership, extraversion, and persistence - fits with a career
  • Skill Utilization: How well related skills - writing, math, organization, and more - are used in the career
  • Interest: How interesting people found the career
  • Work Environment: How enjoyable people found the working conditions

We had no idea what the results would be. The goal was simply to collect data and produce insights that we hoped would be interesting. The full list of insights are here, but I’m going to focus on one insight in this post.

First, for reference, here is a snapshot of the list of happiest careers, sorted by their overall rating.

  1. Film Director
  2. Athlete
  3. Motivational Speaker
  4. Performer
  5. Singer
  6. Musical Artist
  7. Marine Biologist
  8. Zoologist
  9. Music Producer
  10. Horse Trainer
  11. Actor
  12. Costume Designer
  13. Choreographer
  14. DJ
  15. Lyricist
  16. Composer
  17. Piano Accompanist
  18. Video Game Designer
  19. Talent Agent
  20. Filmmaker

It turns out two things matter when it comes to happiness in a career.


Control as a dimension of life is something we tend to undervalue. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful framework for describing equality (or lack thereof) throughout the world, but it’s also a useful proxy for explaining how much control one has over their life.

When we get to the top of the pyramid, we are in control of our time and resources. The same applies with work. How you choose to spend your time at work each day is an incredible gift. Keep in mind that most people are told what to do, when to do it and who to do it with. Unless your boss is incredibly empathetic and in-tune with your unique set of abilities, they are not going to design an optimal work environment for you.

Look at the list of careers above. How many of these careers have atypical schedules? How many aren’t 9–5? How many control their own schedules? It’s not an accident that most of these careers fall far outside the typical mould of what we are told a career looks like.


The second trait, creativity, is complicated. There is an entire field of study dedicated to it and countless books on how to achieve (or pretend to achieve) it. Simply put, creativity is a mental process where something new and valuable to the world is formed. It utilizes a part of the brain that is core to who humans are relative to other animals — the process of imagination and creating the future.

The more you can use this process at work, the happier you are. It’s that simple. Suppressing this process leads to unhappiness at work. It’s not a wonder that the unhappiest category of careers on our list is law, an industry not known for its creative aspects. On the other hand, careers in film, music and performing arts are constantly using this process to express excellence.

In the next post I’ll talk about the “reality” of combining these ideal traits with the real world. What kind of salary can you get in the careers I’m describing? Is there market opportunity for the jobs listed or is it not realistic to expect to enter into any of these careers?

Blog / What Actually Makes Us Happy in Our Careers?

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