Recent surveys show that more Americans than ever are dissatisfied with their jobs. Some are burned out or bored, while others feel that professional success has eluded them. Stress over financial well-being—which for many is synonymous with professional success—is a primary source of discontent. Indeed, when people are asked if they could have anything in the world right now, most report wanting “more money.” Career unhappiness can cause us to question our judgment, industriousness, or motivation. The lure then of finding a new job can prove irresistible—but will a new job really make us happier?
A seminal study suggests that the answer is no. Researchers followed high-level managers for five years to track their job satisfaction before and after a voluntary job change, such as a promotion or a relocation to a more attractive city. The managers were mostly male and white, with an average age of 45 and a $135,000 annual salary. They were doing well. What the researchers found, however, was that although these managers experienced a burst of satisfaction immediately after the job change, their satisfaction plummeted within a year, returning to their original pre-move level. In other words, they experienced a sort of hangover effect. By contrast, managers who chose not to change jobs during the same five-year time period experienced negligible changes in their satisfaction.
We get used to the cities where we live, to new houses and new cars, to relationships, and even to sex. This capacity to adapt to positive changes in our lives is both formidable and biologically hard-wired. Even the events we are certain will bring long-term fulfillment—landing a coveted professional position, or winning an award—tend to disappoint. We feel an immediate thrill, but that thrill is often followed by satiety, elevated expectations, and even letdown.
This is true even of monetary rewards. In the beginning, greater wealth brings us a higher standard of living, and the extravagances bring extra pleasure. But economists have found that two-thirds of the benefits of a raise in income are erased after just one year, in part because our spending and new “needs” rise alongside it and because we begin to associate with (and compare ourselves to) people in a higher income bracket.
With so much seemingly working against long-term professional satisfaction, it’s important to focus on where our chance for happiness truly resides. When we feel we’ve “had it” with our jobs, should we look for job satisfaction elsewhere or is there a different path?
Research suggests that instead of fantasizing about some dream job that doesn’t exist, we focus on pursuing meaningful goals in the here and now. Typically, our professional lives are focused on material goals —more money, wider recognition—but numerous studies have shown that those of us who are striving (and not necessarily achieving) are happier.
When it comes to our careers, if we enjoy the struggle along the way, we will derive pleasure and satisfaction by simply working on our goals. By doing so, we will ideally stretch our skills, discover novel opportunities and challenges, grow, strive, learn, and become more capable and expert. In this way, simple goal pursuit will provide us with opportunities for appreciation, for delight, and for satisfying our innate need to use our potentials to the fullest. Whether our valued goal is inventing something special or finishing school, it will give us something to work for and to look forward to.
Why is goal pursuit so intrinsically rewarding? Because it imparts structure and meaning to our daily lives, creating obligations, deadlines, and timetables, as well as opportunities for mastering new skills and for interacting with others. Because it helps us attain a sense of purpose, feelings of efficacy over our progress, and mastery over our time. All of these things make people happy. And once we accomplish a step along the way (e.g., completing an internship or an article), we would do well to savor that accomplished subgoal before moving on to a new goal. Instead of focusing too much on the finish line in the first place, we should focus on—and enjoy as much as possible—carrying out the multiple baby steps necessary to make progress. The perfect job may not be the position offering the highest rewards, but rather the place where the daily work—the moments between the big promotion or industry triumph—offers the greatest personal returns.