Job satisfaction is too rare, and the lack of it hurts us emotionally and financially.

Share story

If you don’t like your job, you aren’t alone. In fact, 2 out of 3 working Americans do not feel engaged at work, according to a Gallup survey. And many of these people spend more of their waking time working than doing anything else.

As a psychology professor at a business school, I have chatted with many unhappy employees. I have found that one big reason people are unhappy at work is that when they choose a job or a project, they are not aware of what will truly matter to them once they are in the midst of it.

People send resumes and go to interviews thinking that they care only about salaries and promotions. These are important, yes, but they are not enough. To identify a satisfying job, people should be thinking about office morale and doing work that is interesting and fun.

To demonstrate this point, my colleague Kaitlin Woolley and I asked a large group of employees what made them like their present jobs, along with what factors would cause them to like future jobs.

Unsurprisingly, we found that promotions and raises were important for people both in their current job and in applying for future jobs. What was interesting, though, was that the majority cared a lot about present benefits (such as doing something interesting with people they like) in their current job, but they expected not to care very much about those things in their future jobs. When envisioning themselves in the future, they predicted that they would almost solely be driven by delayed benefits like salaries.

Why are people fully aware that present benefits are important in their current job, and yet expect not to care about those benefits in the future? Why, for example, does a student who cannot sit through a boring two-hour lecture think she would be satisfied by a boring but well-paying job?

A basic insight from behavioral science is that people care about the present mainly in the present. They do not really care about it in advance. For example, we care about staying warm when we are in Aspen, Colorado, and it is cold. But while we are packing our clothes in balmy Southern California, we are less likely to consider just how cold we will be in Aspen.

In the workplace, we are similarly well aware that it is much easier to get out of bed in the morning if our job is interesting and our colleagues are fun to be around. But we care much less about such benefits when we apply for a future job. We fail to realize that the person we are in the present — the one who values intrinsic benefits — is awfully similar to the person we will be in the future.

This failure to know ourselves is not unique to employees. Gymgoers, for example, say it is important that their present workout is fun and relaxing, yet they care less about whether their future workout provides these benefits as long as it helps them stay in shape. The result is that people often sign up for the wrong gym class — the one that is best at maximizing delayed health benefits yet fails to deliver an enjoyable experience in the moment.

This natural human tendency has important consequences. We often choose the wrong job or the wrong project and end up regretting it. But keep in mind that if there is one thing that is certain about the future, it is that it will one day be the present. And it is in that present that we will carry out our goals.

How can we use insights from behavioral science to increase job satisfaction? We have developed a three-step approach. First, make sure you choose a career or project that you enjoy pursuing, one that offers present benefits for you. Keep in mind that unless you find small pleasures in your daily routine, you will not stick to it.

Second, add present benefits to your working hours. Listen to music, make friends and break the routine with social activities. Do whatever makes you happy at work; you can stick to your career goals longer if your work is enjoyable in the moment.

Third, bring to mind those present benefits that do exist at your work. Maybe you just have not been paying attention to them. We were able to increase consumption of nutritious food by almost 50 percent by directing people to the good taste instead of the health benefits of vegetables. You can similarly motivate yourself to engage in your work by directing attention to the positive aspects of your tasks.

The bottom line is that job satisfaction is too rare, and the lack of it is hurting us emotionally and financially. Getting up in the morning to deal with a difficult client, an unpleasant boss or an unwelcoming colleague wears us out. To feel satisfied at a job, people need to identify the day-to-day, oftentimes simple pleasures. Many years of research have taught us that people feel energized when the means and the ends collide; that is, when the process of doing something becomes the goal of doing it. We can apply this principle to increase satisfaction at work by selecting work that is inherently gratifying.