According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average American spends roughly eight hours out of every weekday — 40 hours a week — at work. That’s more than one-third of all your waking hours. Given how big a role work plays in your life, it’s pretty clear that finding a good job is important to your overall happiness.
But what is it that makes a job “good”? Many people think of lucrative careers like law, medicine, or business as the best jobs, but according to research, salary isn’t actually the most important factor. A famous study conducted at Princeton University in 2010 and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that earning more money only makes people happier up to a certain point — around $75,000 per year. Beyond that level, raising their income has little effect on their day-to-day happiness.
What matters much more is that you find your job personally satisfying. Naturally, this depends partly on your individual personality and tastes. However, studies suggest that there are certain factors that nearly all the most satisfying jobs have in common. To find a career you can be happy with, it makes sense to focus on jobs that meet these criteria.
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What Makes a Satisfying Career?
Researchers at the nonprofit 80,000 Hours have reviewed and analyzed more than 60 studies, spanning over two decades, on job and life satisfaction. Based on this research, they worked out the secret formula that makes a job satisfying. The six key ingredients are:
1. Engaging or Fulfilling Work
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Business Ethics (JBE) and discussed in detail in Harvard Business Review, social scientists surveyed people of different ages to find out what they found most meaningful in a job. They found that people across all generations — from traditionalists (born before 1945) to millennials — cared most about “items that revolved around intrinsic motivation.” To put it more simply, they wanted a job that they liked doing for its own sake.
An enjoyable job is one that holds your attention. It allows you to become so absorbed in your work that the hours seem to fly by — a state that psychologists refer to as “flow.” According to 80,000 Hours, there are four subfactors that make work engaging:
- Clear Tasks. Each assignment has a definite start and end point.
- Autonomy. You have the freedom to decide how to complete each task.
- Variety. Your work involves different types of tasks rather than the same thing over and over.
- Feedback. Your boss and coworkers give you a clear sense of how well you’re doing on each task.
A 2007 meta-analysis in the Journal of Applied Psychology found strong links between all four of these factors and job satisfaction. However, there was a fifth factor that was just as important: “sense of contribution,” or the feeling that your work makes a difference to others. In fact, some studies suggest that this last factor might even matter more than the other four.
2. Work that Benefits Others
In 2007, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago surveyed 27,000 people to learn how satisfied they were with their jobs. It found that many of the careers with the highest rates of job satisfaction involved caring for, teaching, and protecting others. In other words, jobs that helped other people the most also tended to be the jobs workers found most satisfying.
More recent studies back up this finding. For instance, in the 2017 JBE study, both older and younger people said helping others was an important part of what gave a job meaning. Traditionalists mentioned “work that helps other people,” Baby Boomers talked about helping others to achieve their goals, and millennials mentioned “helping others and the community.” And a 2012 study in Personnel Psychology found that the more strongly people felt their work made a positive difference in other people’s lives, the more satisfied they felt about their jobs.
3. Work You Can Do Well
You’re more likely to like your job if you’re good at it. Doing your job well gives you a sense of accomplishment and motivates you to keep working harder. By contrast, struggling over everyday tasks is likely to leave you frustrated and stressed out. A 2001 survey of over 2,400 people published by Oxford University Press found that people whose work didn’t match their skill sets were much less likely to be happy with their jobs and more likely to be interested in changing jobs.
Being good at your job tends to lead to positive feedback — one of the four components of an engaging job. It also improves your ability to negotiate for other benefits that matter to you at work. For instance, you could ask for more pay, more interesting work, or more flexible hours. If you’re a good worker who makes a major contribution to the company, your boss is more likely to go along with these requests.
Finally, the better you are at your job, the more likely you are to be offered promotions and other opportunities. Simply moving into a position with more pay or more status may not make you feel happier, but the feeling that you’re making progress is likely to increase your sense of satisfaction.
4. Good Relationships with Coworkers
No matter how engaging and meaningful your job is, you’re not going to look forward to going to work if you hate your boss and all your coworkers. That’s why having good relationships with coworkers is also a major predictor of job satisfaction.
Of course, the kind of people you’re likely to get along with varies from person to person. In general, people tend to like others who are similar to themselves in personality, attitudes, culture, and so on. A job is more likely to be a good fit for you if at least a few of your coworkers have backgrounds or interests that match your own.
However, good working relationships don’t necessarily mean being friends with all your coworkers, or even liking them personally. Rather, what matters most is being able to get help and support from them on the job when you need it. A 2007 meta-analysis in the Journal of Applied Psychology found this type of “social support” was one of the top predictors of job satisfaction.
5. A Good Work-Life Balance
Although you want your job to be satisfying, you don’t necessarily want it to be the only source of satisfaction in your life, or even the main one. Ideally, you should have many sources of joy in your life, such as family, friends, hobbies, or volunteer work.
Thus, a good job also has to leave you enough room in your life to enjoy these other things — that is, a good work-life balance. The 2017 JBE study found that work-life balance is particularly important to Generation X workers, who said they need to “feel that your work is not all-consuming or that you feel that you can strike a good balance.”
What balance looks like varies from person to person. Some people are happy working 40, 50, or even 60 hours per week, while others would prefer to work only 30, 25, or 20 hours. According to a 2012 paper by the New Economics Foundation that sums up 20 years’ worth of studies in happiness economics, most people tend to prefer working full-time but not longer than full-time. When people have to put in a lot of extra hours, they are less satisfied with their work.
It’s not just the number of hours that matters, but also which hours they work and where they take place. For some people, it’s enough to know that their job has set hours — say, 9am to 5pm on weekdays — and won’t interfere with their lives the rest of the time. However, many people say they prefer a work schedule that’s flexible, so they can schedule their work time and personal time the way that fits their needs. Others prefer to be able to work from home or another location.
This is one area in which many modern jobs fall short. In a 2018 study conducted by Werk, 96% of workers said they needed some flexibility in their work schedule or location, but only 47% said they actually had it. The jobs that were able to deliver this flexibility tended to be highly in demand.
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6. No Major Downsides
A job that has lots of great perks — engaging, meaningful work, great coworkers, a flexible schedule — could still be a lousy job if it has major negatives that outweigh the positives. Aside from long work hours, the features most likely to ruin a job include:
- Long Commutes. Studies in happiness economics show that long commute times can be a major source of unhappiness. A 2004 study in Science on how people spend their time found that out of 16 daily activities, commuting to work was the one people enjoyed least — less than both work and household chores. A 2008 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics found that people with long commute times were significantly less happy with their lives as a whole.
- Job Insecurity. It’s hard to enjoy your job when you aren’t sure how long you’ll be able to keep it. People with less job security tend to have higher stress and be less satisfied with their work. A 2002 meta-analysis in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that people with less job security are less happy with their jobs, have worse health, and sometimes don’t do their work as well as those with more.
- Working Conditions. Even if your job is secure, it can still be a source of stress if the work itself is dangerous or unpleasant. A 2013 study of a shipbuilding company in Croatia found that workers in the plant, who worked in dangerous and difficult conditions, were less satisfied with their jobs than the administrators who worked in offices.
- Unfair Pay. As noted above, actual salary isn’t all that big a factor in job satisfaction. However, if you make significantly less than your coworkers, that’s likely to make you unhappy, because it makes you feel like you’re not appreciated. A 1996 study in the Journal of Public Economics confirms that people who earn less than those around them are less satisfied with their jobs, and a 2005 study in The Quarterly Journal of Economics shows they’re less happy overall.
- Stress Level. According to research by 80,000 Hours, work-related stress isn’t always a bad thing. An analysis of major studies showed that a job with too little stress — that is, one that never challenges you — is likely to be dull and unsatisfying. The ideal job is one that’s challenging but achievable. It should test your limits sometimes, but not continuously, and it shouldn’t push you past them.
The Most Satisfying Careers
How well any career meets some of the criteria listed above will vary from person to person. However, it’s possible to get a sense of which jobs people are most likely to find satisfying on average.
The career site MyPlan has surveyed its 13,800-plus users to find out how satisfying they find their work and ranked different jobs accordingly. Another site, Payscale, conducted a similar survey with more than 2 million workers. It asked them to rate both how satisfying they found their jobs and how meaningful the jobs were — that is, how much they make the world a better place. We looked at both of these lists, as well as the results of the 2007 NORC survey, to see which careers have the highest reported levels of job satisfaction and meaning.
We then narrowed down this list based on salary data. Although surveys suggest that income isn’t a major predictor of job satisfaction, it’s still important to have enough to live on, so we sorted the list to include only jobs that provide a living wage.
To figure out how much that is, we used the Family Budget Calculator from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). It estimates how much a family needs to maintain “a modest yet adequate standard of living” in different parts of the country. To make sure the careers on our list would all pay enough to live on everywhere in the United States, we used the calculator’s figures for Hawaii, which a 2019 CNBC analysis found to be the most expensive state to live in.
According to the EPI calculator, a single person in Hawaii County, Hawaii, needs an income of $42,785 to get by. We used average salary figures from Payscale and the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to filter out all jobs that don’t pay at least this much. Note that this is only a living wage for one person. To support a family of two adults and two children in the same location, the EPI calculator says you’d need a much higher income — at least $93,441.
Finally, we sorted the list based on the growth potential of each career. After all, there’s no point in setting your sights on a satisfying, high-paying job if there’s little chance you’ll actually be able to get it. So we looked at data from the OOH and narrowed down the list to fields that are growing at a rate that’s at least average and are expected to add at least 5,000 new jobs over the next decade.
Based on these criteria, here are the most satisfying jobs to consider.
The clergy is a broad field covering religious leaders of all faiths, such as priests, ministers, pastors, deacons, imams, and rabbis. Clergy members lead religious worship services and provide spiritual and moral guidance for the members of their congregation. They lead prayers, read from holy books, deliver sermons, and plan or lead religious education programs. The requirements for becoming a clergy member vary by faith, but most clergy members have a college degree and some additional on-the-job training.
This profession lands at the top of the list for job satisfaction in both Payscale and the 2007 NORC study. In Payscale’s survey, 90% of clergy members describe their work as satisfying, and an amazing 98% say it’s meaningful. No other profession on Payscale’s list comes in at over 90% for both job meaning and job satisfaction. However, in the smaller survey conducted by MyPlan, clergy members rank only 19th on the job satisfaction rankings, with around 71% of people describing the job as satisfying.
It’s a good thing this job is so satisfying, because people definitely don’t go into it for the money. Clergy members interviewed by Payscale list their median pay at just $46,600 — just barely enough to make our cutoff for a living wage. (The median salary is the level that half of all workers in a field earn more than, while the other half earn less.) The BLS estimates the median annual wage for clergy members a bit higher, at $50,400, but that’s still not nearly enough to support a family in many parts of the country.
The OOH doesn’t cover this profession in detail. However, according to other data from the BLS, this field is growing at an average rate — about 4% over the next 10 years. As of 2019, there were about 243,900 clergy members in the United States, and the BLS predicts that 9,700 new jobs will be added by 2029.
Firefighters are first responders who get called to the scene of a fire to control the blaze, get people out safely, and help treat the injured. They also help people in other types of emergency situations, such as car crashes and bomb scares. According to the National Fire Protection Association, nearly two out of every three emergency calls firefighters get are for medical emergencies. Firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts, eating and sleeping at the fire station in between calls.
To become a firefighter, you generally need both a high school diploma and emergency medical technician (EMT) certification. You can get the rest of your training on the job at a city or state fire academy. Before going out to fight fires, you must pass both a written test and a strenuous physical test to make sure you can handle such tasks as climbing ladders, carrying victims, and handling heavy equipment.
Being a firefighter is a difficult and dangerous job, but it’s also highly rewarding, as firefighters literally save lives on a daily basis. This job ranks third on the list of the most satisfying jobs in the NORC survey, where over 87% of respondents described it as very satisfying. It comes in second out of 300 jobs on MyPlan, where 90% of respondents say the work is satisfying. In Payscale’s survey, it doesn’t rank quite as high, but it gets a score of 83% for satisfaction and 88% for meaning.
Firefighting is another profession that just barely makes the cut for earning a living wage. According to Payscale, the median salary for firefighters is just $43,100 per year. However, the OOH puts it a bit higher, at $50,850.
The good news is that this field is growing at a pretty good pace — around 6% over 10 years. The OOH predicts that the number of firefighters in the country will grow from 335,500 in 2019 to 375,800 in 2029.
Defining this job is a bit tricky. Obviously, a teacher is someone whose job is to educate students, but that broad definition covers many kinds of educators, from prekindergarten teachers to college professors in a wide variety of subject areas. Sources don’t all agree on which types of teachers have the most satisfying jobs, but teachers of some sort show up on every list, suggesting that the overall field of teaching is a satisfying one for many people.
The day-to-day duties of a teacher, and the requirements to become one, vary widely depending on the type of teaching involved. For example, kindergarten and elementary school teachers typically need a bachelor’s degree and a state teaching certificate, and their job includes maintaining order in the classroom and teaching young children how to interact with each other. By contrast, college professors usually have a Ph.D., and their work centers around lectures, grading papers, advising students, and conducting research of their own.
Various types of teaching get high scores for satisfaction in our sources. The NORC study lists “teacher,” with no other descriptor, as the sixth-most satisfying job in the U.S., with high marks from over 69% of respondents. MyPlan gives satisfaction ratings of 70% or higher to college professors in several subjects, high school and middle school teachers of vocational studies, and teachers of self-enrichment education. And Payscale gives ratings over 70% to college professors in several subjects — although, interestingly, not generally the same subjects as MyPlan — and to high school and middle school teachers in general.
Earnings and growth prospects for teachers depend on the type of teaching. In general, teachers earn more at higher levels of education. Here’s how the numbers break down:
- Kindergarten and Elementary School: Payscale doesn’t list salaries for elementary school teachers, and it puts the median earnings of kindergarten teachers at only $39,000 per year. However, the OOH gives a much higher median of $59,420 per year for kindergarten and elementary school teachers. It says this field is growing at a rate of 4% over 10 years and will add 56,100 jobs between 2019 and 2029.
- Middle School: According to Payscale, the median wage for middle school teachers is $44,100. The OOH puts it higher, at $59,660. It estimates job growth for middle school teachers at 4% over the next decade, with 22,500 new jobs created.
- High School: Payscale puts the median income for secondary school teachers at $47,100 per year. According to the OOH, high school teachers earn a median salary of $61,660 per year. The field is growing at an average rate, about 4% over 10 years, and will add 40,200 new jobs by 2029.
- College: According to Payscale, postsecondary teachers in most subjects earn around $50,800 per year. However, the OOH puts their median income at $79,540 per year. It also says this field is growing much faster than other types of teaching, with growth of around 9% — or 121,500 new jobs — expected by 2029.
Pediatricians are doctors who specialize in treating children. They spend most of their time dealing with problems specific to younger patients, such as minor injuries and common childhood illnesses. They also keep kids up-to-date on their childhood vaccinations. Some pediatricians specialize in pediatric surgery or treating serious conditions that affect children, such as autoimmune disorders.
Like other doctors, pediatricians have to go through a lot of training. In addition to a four-year college degree, they must complete four years of medical school, followed by internship and residency. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a regular residency program in this field takes three years, and combined residencies in pediatrics and another branch of medicine take four or five.
All types of doctors report high levels of job satisfaction, but pediatricians rank particularly high. According to Payscale’s data, 88% of pediatricians find their jobs very meaningful, and 89% find them very satisfying. That’s not quite as high a number for job meaning as some other types of doctors, such as surgeons, psychiatrists, and anesthesiologists, but it’s a significantly higher rating for job satisfaction. Pediatricians also rank fourth on the list of the best jobs at MyPlan, with 80% saying they’re satisfied with their careers.
Pediatricians not only feel good about their work, they also earn a good living from it. According to the BLS, the median salary for pediatricians was $175,310 in 2019. The BLS does not estimate the expected growth for this particular field, but it says that jobs for physicians and surgeons in general are expected to increase by 4% over the next decade. Since there are currently around 29,740 pediatricians in the country, that rate of growth would work out to 1,190 new jobs for pediatricians by 2029.
5. Physical Therapists
Physical therapists help people recover from injuries or illnesses that cause them pain and restrict their movement. Using techniques like stretches, other exercises, and body manipulation, they help patients reduce their pain and improve their mobility. To become a physical therapist, you need to complete a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree program, which usually takes three years after college. In some programs, you can earn your bachelor’s degree and your DPT at the same time over six or seven years.
In the NORC study, physical therapists had the second-highest average job satisfaction ratings in the country, just behind clergy members. However, this career’s ratings in other sources are a bit more mixed. In Payscale’s data, 90% of physical therapists describe their jobs as highly meaningful, but only 72% say they’re highly satisfying. And in MyPlan’s data, this career ranks 37th on a list of 300 jobs, with only 66% of respondents finding it satisfying.
However, physical therapists definitely can’t complain about their earnings and prospects for job growth. Payscale estimates the median income for this field at $73,400, and the OOH puts it at a still higher $89,440. The OOH also says this field is expected to grow by a whopping 18% over the next 10 years, adding 47,000 new jobs.
6. Chief Executives
A chief executive, or chief executive officer (CEO), is a person who’s in charge of an organization, such as a business, a nonprofit, a college, or a government agency. While other executives at an organization can focus on specific aspects of its work, such as marketing or developing new products and services, the CEO looks at the big picture.
A company’s CEO is in charge of setting its overall goals and policies and directing all its operations. What this means on a day-to-day basis depends on the size of the company. At a Fortune 500 company, the CEO has to work with the board of directors to set company policy and coordinate the activities of a whole team of other executives and managers. By contrast, the chief executive of a small business, such as a local coffee shop, could be responsible for every part of the business: hiring and training new workers, keeping track of finances, and even working hands-on in the kitchen sometimes.
There are various paths to becoming a CEO. In large companies, it usually means working your way up through the ranks of management. It helps to have a degree in business or in a field related to the company’s work. However, some people become chief executives by starting their own small businesses and tending them as they grow.
Chief executives aren’t covered in the NORC study. However, they’re ranked 15th from the top of MyPlan’s list, with an overall job satisfaction rating of around 72%. At Payscale, 88% of CEOs describe their jobs as very satisfying, and 74% describe them as very meaningful.
According to the BLS, the median income for a chief executive is $184,460, However, incomes vary widely depending on the organization. The bottom 10% of people in this field earn $62,290 or less. The BLS doesn’t have a job growth prediction for chief executives specifically, but the OOH predicts jobs for “top executives” will grow at 4% over 10 years, with 115,000 new jobs added.
Psychologists study the human mind and how people interact with each other and their environments. Some psychologists are health care providers who diagnose and treat mental problems through tests, counseling, and behavior modification. Others are researchers who conduct experiments to study human thought and behavior.
Most psychologists have a doctoral degree — either a Ph.D. in psychology or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Ph.D. programs in psychology focus on research, while Psy.D. programs focus on clinical training. Psychologists who work with patients must usually also complete a one-year internship as part of their doctoral program.
The NORC study rates psychologists as the eighth-happiest workers in America, with 67% describing themselves as “very satisfied.” In Payscale’s data, 78% of psychologists call their jobs very satisfying, and 88% describe them as very meaningful. However, this career gets much lower ratings on MyPlan, with only 62.5% of psychologists saying they’re happy with their jobs.
Surveys from Payscale find that clinical, counseling, and school psychologists earn a median salary of $60,800. However, the OOH puts the median salary of psychologists in general quite a bit higher, at $80,370. It also predicts that this field will grow by 3% by 2029, adding 5,700 new jobs.
8. Detectives and Criminal Investigators
There are two kinds of detectives. Detectives and criminal investigators in police departments investigate crimes. They interview witnesses, examine records, observe suspects, and gather evidence in an attempt to find the culprits and bring them to justice. Most police detectives specialize in one type of crime, such as homicide or fraud.
Private detectives, also called private investigators (PIs), sometimes investigate crimes on behalf of victims, but more often their work involves searching for information about legal, financial, or personal problems. For example, they could try to track down the source of employee theft within a company, try to locate a missing person, conduct background checks, or try to catch a cheating spouse as part of a divorce case. Some private investigators work for large companies, tracking down problems such as insurance fraud.
The requirements for becoming a police detective vary by department. In general, applicants must have at least a high school diploma and must go through the other training required to become a member of the force. Most detectives start out as regular police officers before being promoted to detective. Federal investigators, such as FBI agents, typically need a college degree.
Private detectives usually need a high school diploma as well, although some jobs require a two-year or four-year college degree in a field such as criminal justice. They also spend at least a year learning on the job. Many PI jobs also call for previous experience in a related field, such as law enforcement, federal intelligence, or the military.
Detectives don’t make the top-12 list in the NORC study, but the study notes that “police and detectives” have an above-average job satisfaction rating, with 59.3% saying they’re very satisfied with their work. On MyPlan, 77% of criminal investigators and 71% of private detectives describe their work as satisfying. At Payscale, the job gets overall ratings of 78% for high meaning and 74% for satisfaction.
According to Payscale, the median income for detectives and criminal investigators is $67.300. The OOH doesn’t list police detectives as a separate field, but it says police and detectives overall earn a median wage of $65,170 per year, while private investigators make $50,510. Police work overall is expected to grow by 5% over the next 10 years, adding 40,600 new jobs, although most of those will not be detective jobs. The field of private investigation is expected to grow even faster at 8%, but because it’s a smaller field to start with, it will add only 3,000 new jobs.
9. Physician Assistants
A physician assistant, or PA, is more than just someone who assists a doctor. These medical professionals have lots of authority to provide care for patients themselves, although always under a doctor’s supervision. They can conduct physical exams, order and interpret tests, diagnose diseases, prescribe drugs, and perform tasks like setting a bone or administering a shot. PAs don’t need as much training as doctors, but they must go through a master’s degree program that usually takes two years on top of a four-year college degree.
The NORC study doesn’t cover physician assistants, but they get high job satisfaction scores from other sources. More than 72% of PAs surveyed by MyPlan say their job is satisfying. At Payscale, 78% of PAs rate the jobs as highly satisfying, and 83% say it’s highly meaningful.
Payscale and the OOH offer widely differing estimates of the median salary for a physician assistant. Payscale puts it at $88,100, while the OOH says it’s $112,260. The OOH also notes that this is an incredibly fast-growing career field; it predicts the field will grow by 31% over the next 10 years, adding 39,300 new jobs.
10. School and Career Counselors
School and career counselors help direct students through their academic career and on into the working world. There’s some overlap between the two jobs, and sometimes one person can do both. However, in general, school counselors focus more on helping students develop their academic and social skills, while career counselors help them find a career path or an educational program that will lead to a career.
Payscale and MyPlan both list this profession as “educational, vocational, and career counselors.” At MyPlan, it has an overall satisfaction rate of around 80%. At Payscale, it gets a score of 72% for high satisfaction and 80% for high meaning.
In terms of earnings, however, this field isn’t quite as promising. In fact, according to Payscale’s data, counselors only earn a median annual wage of $40,800 — below our cutoff for a living wage. However, the OOH puts the median earnings for this career much higher, at $57,040 per year. It also estimates job growth in this field over the next 10 years at a brisk 8%, with 26,800 new jobs created.
As you can see, this list has quite a lot of variety. It doesn’t focus on any one specific industry or skill set. Some of the jobs on it require an advanced degree, while others call for only a high school diploma. There are some jobs that involve working with big groups of people and some where you interact with others mostly one-on-one.
All this is good news because it means there are satisfying jobs out there to fit people of all different personalities and backgrounds. It also means that even if none of the jobs on this list seems like a perfect fit for you, there’s a good chance of finding one that can make you happy and pay your bills at the same time.
To find your ideal job, think about your personal interests and skills, look for jobs that match them, and then check out those jobs on sources like Payscale to see how satisfying they are for other people. If most people who have chosen a particular job are glad they did, that’s a good sign it could work out well for you too.
What are the main things that make a job satisfying for you? How many of them does your current job have?