Job Satisfaction in Psychology: 5 Surprising Research Findings

Job satisfaction researchA typical career lasts 80,000 hours – a significant portion of your life.

But just how satisfied are you with what you do?

After all, satisfaction with your job is important to your happiness, providing a sense of purpose, and is even vital to your organization’s performance.

Following your passion may not be the easy path to increasing job satisfaction that self-help books suggest. It could be time to find a new role, or you may be better off reimagining your existing one.

In this article, we ask: What is job satisfaction? Then, after exploring some of the psychological models, we look at some surprising research findings.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download these three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

Behind the Psychology of Job Satisfaction

Although job satisfaction has been widely explored in psychology, a single definition is lacking.

However, Edwin Locke (1976) from the University of Maryland offers a good starting point. He describes job satisfaction as:

“The pleasurable emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job as achieving or facilitating the achievement of one’s job values.”

It’s a little wordy – and doesn’t help us explain or predict job satisfaction – but does suggest a link to happiness. After all, it’s a complicated matter. There are working people who are miserable, and there are people searching for work who are equally unhappy.

So, while it may not be as simple as having a job, considering meaning in work may improve our understanding of job satisfaction.

 

Meaning and satisfaction in work

Rosso, Dekas, and Wrzesniewski (2010) asked whether meaning is crucial to employees’ experience of work. After all, for most of us it’s a necessity – paying bills and affording the occasional vacation.

Beyond basic necessities, finding meaning in work is also vital for (Rosso et al., 2010):

  • Work motivation
  • Work behavior
  • Limiting absenteeism
  • Engagement
  • Organizational identification
  • Career development
  • Individual performance
  • Personal fulfillment

Indeed, meaning in work is linked to more profound experiences of purpose and happiness – known in the social sciences as eudaimonic happiness – and job satisfaction (Rosso et al., 2010).

 

Meaning is about the why

People who find meaning in what they do – sometimes described as a calling – report greater work satisfaction and even tend to work longer (often unpaid) hours (Steger, Dik, & Duffy, 2012).

Michael Pratt, professor of management and organization at Boston College, says, “Meaningfulness is about the why, not just about what” (Weir, 2013).

I’m building a hospital” versus “I’m laying bricks.
I’m getting ready to save lives” versus “I’m studying medicine.
I’m providing healthcare and education for my family” versus “I’m updating spreadsheets.

 

Job satisfaction is down to interpretation

Like happiness, job satisfaction has more to do with how we interpret the situation and the events as they unfold than where we find ourselves. After all, happiness relies on the “interpretative framework that assigns positive value to the event,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2016).

His research showed that people often find more opportunities for an optimal experience and flow at work than in home life. This appears to result from our jobs often being high-skill and high-challenge, while our leisure is often low-skill and low-challenge. And yet, despite this, people at work wish to be elsewhere, while at leisure, people are often where they want to be (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016).

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi (2009) describes how most of us need ever-increasing mental and physical labor to “satisfy escalating expectations.” And yet, work, even if it is difficult, need not be unpleasant. It can be satisfying and enjoyable – perhaps the most enjoyable part of our lives.

Throughout his research into optimal experiences, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed many people who found meaning and enjoyment even in the most arduous physical jobs. He describes such people as having autotelic personalities able to create flow-like experiences in the toughest of conditions (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

One of the hallmarks of such personalities is the ability to transform any job into a complex activity. They developed skills, recognized opportunities, focused on the task, and lost themselves in their interaction with what they were doing (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

People appear to derive job satisfaction from complexity, skilled work, and being part of something much bigger, whether that be spiritual or not (Steger et al., 2012).

 

A lack of job satisfaction

But, ignoring the autotelic few, for many, job satisfaction is absent.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 30% of U.S. workers are engaged in what they do. The other 70% have checked out – their passion is gone and their energy drained.

Such limited job satisfaction is not only detrimental to wellbeing; disengaged workers drain their managers’ time and “undermine what their co-workers accomplish.” They are more frequently absent and, according to Gallup, cost companies customers due to poor service – worth a staggering $450–550 billion per year (Weir, 2013).

 

5 Models Explaining Job Satisfaction

Models explaining job satisfactionJob satisfaction is, according to Paul Spector (1997) from the University of South Florida, the “extent to which people like (satisfaction) or dislike (dissatisfaction) their jobs.”

This satisfaction is multi-factored, with research findings suggesting influences from multiple separate yet overlapping elements, including (Hassard, Teoh, & Cox, 2018):

  • Working conditions
  • Pay
  • Colleagues
  • Whether the job meets or exceeds work expectations
  • Enjoyment of work

Researched widely in both occupational and organizational psychology, several job satisfaction theories have arisen, but no overall consensus has been reached (Hassard et al., 2018).

Some of the more common theories of job satisfaction, many of which overlap with various theories of motivation, include (Hassard et al., 2018):

 

Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s needs hierarchy was one of the first models to explore the factors that impact job satisfaction.

Maslow’s (1943) famed five-level hierarchy, from the top down, consists of:

  • Self-actualization – realization of a person’s potential
  • Esteem – approval, respect, and recognition
  • Belonging – acceptance, affiliation, and affection
  • Safety – security, stability, and freedom from fear
  • Physiological needs – food, shelter, and water

Essential physiological needs such as water, food, and shelter must be met before higher, more complex needs such as esteem can be reached.

While developed to explain more general human motivation, the hierarchy also applies to job satisfaction, for example:

  • Basic physiological needs within an organization are met through pay and healthcare.

  • Safety is reflected by both feelings of security within the workplace and job security.

  • Self-actualization is only reached when the individual has achieved all they are capable of. However, the final stage is difficult to measure, and it can be unclear when reached.

 

Motivator hygiene model

According to Frederick Herzberg’s (1966) motivator hygiene model, job satisfaction and dissatisfaction may not be related or exist on the same continuum.

The factors that impact satisfaction and dissatisfaction are, therefore, not the same:

  • Benefits, pay, and achievement are needed to ensure the employee is satisfied at work.
  • Working conditions, job security, quality of management, etc. (known as hygiene factors) are associated with job dissatisfaction.

If we take the model literally, it is possible for an employee to be neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. Research attempts to validate the model have had mixed results (Hassard et al., 2018).

 

Job characteristics model

Hackman and Oldham’s (1975) job characteristics model has received greater empirical support. It predicts that individuals are higher in job satisfaction when intrinsically motivated characteristics are present.

Skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and positive or even constructive negative feedback influence job satisfaction. Improving any one – or all of them – leads to increased job satisfaction.

 

Dispositional approach

Job satisfaction appears closely associated with personality. As our character tends to be relatively stable across time and environments, logically, so is our job satisfaction level.

Though inconsistent, support has come from research that shows job satisfaction is typically stable for over five years (Hassard et al., 2018).

 

Self-determination theory

While the above models’ validity has often lacked support, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s (2018) Self-Determination Theory has been successfully validated in many aspects of human motivation. Put simply, when basic psychological needs – relatedness, autonomy, and competence – are met, humans are more intrinsically motivated.

When put to the test in a large-scale intervention with a U.S. Fortune 500 company, a more autonomy-supportive (intrinsically motivating) managerial style saw increased job satisfaction (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

 

5 Fascinating Empirical Findings

Finding satisfaction in work

A review of 60 career satisfaction studies spanning two decades produced some surprising results.

Six ingredients were identified as essential to job satisfaction. Interestingly, none of them included higher income or following your passion (Todd, 2020):

  1. Find engaging work
    Tasks must draw you in and, if possible, provide a sense of flow. Freedom to choose how you work, clearly defined tasks, variety, and regular feedback are also important.

  2. Find work that helps others
    Performing acts of kindness makes people happier and, if part of a job, increases job satisfaction.

  3. Being good at what you do
    Being skilled is vital to job satisfaction. You may be interested in something, but are you any good?

  4. Work with supportive colleagues
    Our relationships are crucial to our fulfillment. While you don’t need to be best friends with coworkers, knowing they have your back is essential.

  5. Major negatives are absent
    Key negative factors must be limited; for example, a long commute, excessive hours, unfair pay, and job insecurity.

  6. Work/life balance
    Your career should fit in with the rest of your life – in fact, what you do outside of work may balance out and invigorate what you do for a living.

 

Following your passion

Following your passion, despite what self-help guides often tell us, may not be conducive to job satisfaction. Indeed, it could make it more challenging to meet each of the six prerequisites above (Todd, 2020).

Seeking a role that aligns with your passion may also limit your opportunities, making finding a job difficult, especially when you have no idea what your passion is.

Instead, develop a passion for your current role. The six points above do not focus on the content of the job, but the context. Learn, become skilled, and build the above factors into what you are doing.

 

Which jobs make us happiest?

In 2007, Dr. Tom Smith from the University of Chicago published a study reporting how satisfied people were with their jobs.

The most satisfying jobs were:

  1. Clergy
  2. Physical therapists
  3. Firefighters
  4. Education administrators
  5. Painter, sculptors, and related occupations
  6. Teachers
  7. Authors
  8. Psychologists
  9. Special education teachers
  10. Operating engineers
  11. Office supervisors
  12. Security and financial services salespersons

And the least satisfying jobs were:

  1. Roofers
  2. Waiters/servers
  3. Laborers, except construction
  4. Bartenders
  5. Hand packers and packagers
  6. Freight, stock, and material handlers
  7. Apparel salespersons
  8. Cashiers
  9. Food preparers
  10. Expediters
  11. Butchers and meat cutters
  12. Furniture/Home furnishing salespersons

People in the least satisfied group were most often in unskilled, manual, and service positions. While those in the most satisfying jobs typically involved elements of teaching, caring, protecting, and being creative.

The U.S. clergy seemed the happiest, possibly due to their role being so closely aligned with their values.

 

But what about psychology?

Psychologists appear reasonably satisfied with their roles, despite issues with salary and benefits.

  • A review of multiple studies found that nearly 85% of school psychologists were satisfied with their job.

In particular, they were most content with positive coworker relationships, being busy, working independently, and being of service to others (VanVoorhis & Levinson, 2006).

  • A more recent study found that 93% of psychologists in the U.S. self-reported as being “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs.

They seemed particularly happy with their degree of independence and their contribution to society. Sadly, satisfaction with salary and benefits was only 37%, and opportunities for advancement a poor 28% (Lin, Christidis, & Conroy, 2019).

 

What about other careers?

As we have seen, job satisfaction tendencies differ between job types.

And yet we must be cautious regarding the inferences we draw. It could be either that a job type leads to increased job satisfaction or that particular personalities are drawn to a role.

A final look at job satisfaction in unusual roles may offer additional insights.

Those who feel their job has a higher calling are often most content in their work.

For example, zookeepers often work long hours for a relatively low wage. They also spend a great deal of time working outdoors cleaning up after animals. And yet they report high levels of job satisfaction, are passionate about what they do, and often believe a series of events led them to their career (Weir, 2013).

If you still find it hard to find a role that gives you the level of job satisfaction you are after, try out the list of unusual jobs on LifeHack; my favorites include:

  • Golf ball diver
  • Cruise ship entertainer
  • Academy award ballot counter
  • Sommelier

There are many roles out there, some of which we may not have previously considered. While earlier generations may have thought a single job would last a lifetime, current and future workers view their career as a progression of multiple career paths.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Resources

Satisfied workerUnderstanding your strengths can be crucial to either finding the right job or doing well in your existing one.

As Tom Rath puts it in Strengths Based Leadership “if you spend your life trying to be good at everything you will never be good at anything” (Rath & Conchie, 2009).

Our Maximizing Strengths Masterclass© provides a comprehensive six-module science-based package for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients identify their unique potential and build on their strengths.

You may also find the Motivation & Goal Achievement Masterclass© to be useful. Many theories of job satisfaction overlap with various theories of motivation, and this masterclass will enable you to help your clients achieve meaningful success and goal achievement.

Several articles can contribute to job satisfaction in the workplace, and the following resources are recommended additional reading:

 

A Take-Home Message

While money is undoubtedly essential for our security and wellbeing, salary is not a central factor in job satisfaction. We should bear that in mind when considering changing jobs or adjusting our work/life balance.

For some, life satisfaction is independent of the career path they choose. They will make any job an optimal experience, rich in enjoyment and satisfaction.

Indeed, we all have a choice. We can either keep changing our job until we find something that offers sufficient satisfaction – this may only ever be transient – or change our outlook and the features of our current role. Developing skills, adding complexity to tasks, and balancing existing ability levels against new challenges can do more than optimize performance – it can achieve flow and maximize fulfillment (Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).

Remaining motivated is vital to job satisfaction; we must continually identify new ways of increasing our sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. By meeting these essential psychological needs, we are encouraging intrinsic motivation and a deep sense of worth.

The experts at 80,000 hours suggest that in order to find value and meaning in what we do for a living, we should (Todd, 2020):

  • Not focus on achieving more money and less stress
  • Not spend hours searching for our passion
  • Become good at what we do, and help others where we can

Their advice for finding a satisfying job is to look for:

  1. Work we are good at
  2. Work that helps others
  3. Supportive conditions that let us enter a state of flow

Make your own meaning and spend the 80,000 hours of your career wisely.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

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  • Steger, M. F., Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2012). Measuring meaningful work. Journal of Career Assessment, 20(3), 322–337.
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About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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