Study finds happiness linked to rewarding careers

By Zachary Binney

f you’re looking for happiness and isn’t working, consider a career in helping people. Workers who spend their days improving the lives of others are among the most satisfied in the country, according to a recent study from University researchers.

The new report links people’s jobs to how satisfied they are in their careers as well as to their general happiness. “Work…is one’s main source of social standing, helps to define who a person is, and affects one’s health both physically and mentally,” wrote Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey (GSS) at the University-affiliated National Opinion Research Center, in the report.

“We found that occupations that involved a high degree of prestige, particularly those involving caring for others…were the highest in job satisfaction,” Smith said in a telephone interview. Clergy ranked the highest, with 87.2 percent saying they were “very satisfied” in their careers. Firefighters (80.1 percent) and physical therapists (78.1 percent) were close runners-up. Rounding out the top 10 were education administrators, painters and sculptors, teachers, authors, psychologists, special education instructors, and operating engineers.

Roofers ended up on the bottom of the satisfaction list, with a mere 25.3 percent describing themselves as “very satisfied.” Also near the bottom were waiters, bartenders, laborers (except construction), cashiers, and butchers. “It was jobs that involved very low skill—manual and service positions, often menial, burdensome, and unpleasant work—that had the lowest satisfaction,” Smith said.

On the general happiness scale, clergy also came out on top (67.2 percent “very happy”). They were followed by firefighters, transportation ticket and reservation agents, architects, and special education teachers. At the bottom were garage and service station attendants (13.2 percent “very happy”), followed by roofers, molding and casting machine operators, and construction laborers.

The report was compiled using data from face-to-face interviews conducted from 1988 to 2006 as part of the GSS. This portion of the GSS included interviews from 27,587 people, representing a scientifically chosen cross-section of Americans.

Prior research has shown a strong correlation between the social prestige of a career and the satisfaction of its workers. “More prestigious jobs require more education, higher financial rewards, and higher social standing, and this explains much of the variation in job satisfaction,” Smith said.

However, some jobs with very high social prestige, like doctors and lawyers, didn’t make the top of the list. “If you look at what differentiates beyond higher socioeconomic status, then it becomes very clear that helping others is a prime factor,” Smith said. “Firefighters and physical therapists were very high, as opposed to lawyers, who rank above average, but not near the very top because that’s a job that doesn’t involve as high an element of caring.”

Stress is a major negative factor for job satisfaction, helping to explain why, for example, doctors ranked so much lower than physical therapists. “Being a physician requires a lot more stress, a lot more danger of being sued, and this is something that lowers job satisfaction,” Smith said. “Both benefit from helping others, but physical therapists don’t get the negatives of stress.”