What Makes a Dream Job? Hint: Aim for Contribution

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We all want to find the ‘dream job’.  Or ‘dream career’.

Spending endless hours scrolling through the internet in the desperate hope of finding a career that gets us excited to get up each morning. Something stress free. Something that unites our budding passions with a fantastic career. Something that pays us so exceptionally well that we can spend our weekends chilling out at the Hamptons.

But, is it really as simple as that?

Well, no…

First, let’s look at a couple of myths or misconceptions about what makes for a dream job.

Myth 1: “Money buys you happiness”

Ah, the common misconception that having infinites amounts of money will make us infinitely happy.

Does money buy happiness?

It is true that having some money will make you happier, but only by a little bit. In fact, a huge survey in the United states in 2010 found that household income is related to life satisfaction. But, only until around $75,000 a year. After this threshold, there is not much further progression in life satisfaction with an increase of earnings.

So perhaps it is true “money can’t buy us happiness. But, I’d rather cry in the front seat of a Mercedes than the back seat of a bus”.

Myth 2: “Don’t stress, do your best, forget the rest”

Another common misconception is that a life with no stress is the life we should all strive for.

Sure, no one wants to be overcome by chronic stress, which can affect us both physically and psychologically. Bad stress is on-going and typically involves low autonomy, low power and social isolation.

However, there is such a thing as ‘good stress’. Stress that is short lived and is accompanied by high autonomy, high power, meaning and social support. This kind of acute stress has actually been shown to benefit us if we are optimistic and have good coping mechanisms as it may aid us in dealing well with chronic stress,

So, what should we aim for?

Martin Seligman in his book Flourish proposes that we should all follow five basic factors in order to find a fulfilling career:

  1. Positive emotion, which means feeling happy, cheerful and optimistic.
  2. Engagement, which means that our work is engaging and gives us a sense of flow.
  3. Relationships, which is the social ingredient to our work. In short, we need to have supportive and good relationships in our working environment.
  4. Meaning, which means that our work needs to have meaning that contributes to a purpose beyond our own satisfaction.
  5. Accomplishment, which means being good at what you do.

For a while, there is an academic debate as to whether these factors really constitute the fundamental factors of well-being or not. But everyone agrees that they at least important parts of it or correlate with well-being

However, Seligman’s research is perhaps a bit outdated. After extensive research, the guys at 80,000 hours have reworked his work to give a modern perspective on just how to find a dream job.

1. Do work that is engaging

In case you couldn’t guess it, this corresponds to the ‘engagement’ factor introduced by Seligman (yes, really). We need to do work that holds us in and grabs our attention.

There are four factors of engaging work that we need to find in our dream jobs. The first is autonomy, which refers to how much freedom we have over a task. The second is clear tasks, which refers to how defined the task is from start to finish. The third is feedback from others, just so we know how well we are doing. And the final is a variety in the types of tasks we do.

This idea is supported by a large meta-analysis, which found that all four factors significantly correlated to job satisfaction (r=0.4)

2. Do work that helps others

Arguably, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that doing work that helps others might be a key ingredient in overall satisfaction.

I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as a selfish good deed. Sure, we want to help people, but we all crave that feeling of happiness and satisfaction after completing our deed. In fact, a study actually found that people who give to others are happier with their lives.

Similarly, controlled trials found that performing acts of kindness increases happiness. Based on this, we can assume that there would also be a causal relationship between helping others through your job and increased happiness and job satisfaction.

And, this assumption is correct. A general social survey conducted in the US found that people in jobs that involve helping others do indeed score very well on job satisfaction rankings. 

3. Do work that you are good at

We all tend to enjoy doing things we’re good at; it makes us feel accomplished, fulfilled and is easy.

Being good at your job also means you have the skills that make you believe you can do it, which will lead you to less stress. This idea is backed by an analysis of 2460 individuals, which found a strong negative relationship between skill mismatch and job satisfaction.

Not only does being good at your job lead you to being more satisfied, it is also a gateway to having more control, having more meaningful tasks and working towards things with a mission. In short, find something you’re good at, and the rest will follow…

4. Do work with people you like

It’s a no brainer that doing work with people you like will benefit us. Who wants to go to work every day and hate the people they are surrounded by?

A meta-analysis of 259 studies found that social support was strongly correlated with job satisfaction. It makes sense, working with people you like provides you with easy ways to get help, advice and support; which will make us happier!

5. Do work that meets your basic needs

Finally, 80,000 hours propose that we need to do work that meets our basic needs. They propose that our work must:

  • Have reasonable hours as our work-life balance is very important to well-being and happiness. A British Household Panel survey, of roughly 10,000 individuals found that long hours were associated with lower job satisfaction. It makes sense, if we’re always working then we’re not happy.
  • Have good job security. Uncertainty in a job is one that can lead to all sorts of stress and worry about life. In the job characteristic model, job security is posited to be a moderator of the effect of job characteristics on job satisfaction.
  • Have a short commute. The UK Office for National Statistics in 2014 found that long commutes, especially when stuck on busses, are associated with lower life satisfaction.
  • Ensure you have fair pay. Even though we’ve already established that money can’t buy you happiness, it can make you unhappy if you realize that people are getting paid more than you. This idea is backed up by a study that found that if found out what peers earn and get paid less, then less satisfied

Wrapping up

Reach your dream job!

So, there you have it. Five simple things you should look for in a ‘dream job’.

But, let’s not romanticize the complexity of working life. Some jobs might suck for a while but the key is to do what contributes. Get good at something that help’s others and if you can become really good at your work, the other factors will be taken care of. This is not a newfound idea, even the Buddha proposed ideas like this.

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