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Some of us dislike our job. Others are happy enough with it. But still other people love what they do to earn their bread. What is it that people get from a job that enables them to derive joy from it? Of course, the answer is different for everyone. But thinking about the things that most often bring contentment at work for different people helps us work out the answer for ourselves. Let’s have a look at the most frequently cited elements in what turns a good job into a great one.
Autonomy means not being micro-managed, but rather being able to use our own skills and problem-solving abilities to achieve a certain outcome. Importantly, however, it does not mean being left to do whatever we want. Rather, clear goals are important – we need to know what it is we are trying to do in order to do it well. But, once given the goal and the resources they need, most people enjoy having some flexibility as to how they will attain it, rather than feeling like their manager would secretly prefer them to be a robot programmed to operate exactly as instructed.
One of the things that makes work most satisfying is to be able to use our own particular skills. This helps us to feel we are making the most of ourselves and gives us the satisfaction of a job well done – a key element in having a sense of purpose.
Humans are social animals. Some of us might enjoy working independently, but ultimately we rely on sharing ourselves with others. Someone else seeing and appreciating the work we do now and again is crucial, making feedback a necessary part of work life.
Salary is part of this, too. In fact, I am even going as far as to put salary into this category rather than in a category of its own. Ultimately we all have to make decisions that affect how much we earn: some choose to pursue a highly lucrative role, while others decide to work somewhere that will give them more family time, or for a charitable organization – fully knowing that these decisions will cost them financially. Of course, few people would actively turn down more money. But what really makes us happy is feeling that the work we are doing is being properly and fairly rewarded, in accordance with the circumstances and the choices we’ve made. We don’t like being paid less than a colleague for the same work not simply because we want that extra money, but because it’s unfair and suggests we are less valued. A salary that properly recognizes our efforts is what matters most.
It’s a truism that we don’t have to like our colleagues. But having people in our work with whom we can share a laugh – or perhaps even a coffee or a beer now and again – can make a big difference to our satisfaction. After all, once we’ve finished education, work can take over our lives and is one of the main ways we make friends as an adult. This is especially important for those who have moved to a new area – whether for work or personal reasons – and might not have easy access to the social contact we all need to make life go smoothly.
The Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has become famous for his concept of ‘flow’ – when we get lost in our task and the hours flit by. One of the main conditions for this state to arise is when the task we are working on is difficult enough to test us and engage our full attention, but not so hard as to be impossible for us to complete. If our work is in this sweet spot, it will help us enter a state of flow and make our work feel absorbing and more fulfilling.
A sense of purpose is no doubt one of the main things that spring to mind for inclusion on a list such as this one. But it’s probably the hardest to pin down. Is it just doing something good for others? Maybe. But we can’t all work in visionary charities – and many of us do good for others simply by living our lives as thoughtful and reliable friends, spouses, partners, parents, siblings, or similar. A sense of purpose is an elusive concept and it’s hard to be definitive about what creates it – but perhaps it comes as a composite of the other things on this list: having autonomy, being able to use our strengths, proper recognition, a great team, and being challenged at the right level all contribute to finding a sense of purpose.
Everyone looks for something different from their job – and we don’t even always know what means the most to us without a bit of trial and error. Perhaps, for you, it’s something on this list – or maybe there’s something else that you’re looking for. Either way, taking some time to think about what would make you love your job might be the first step in finding that role you really do live for.