One of the motivations for writing my latest book was the reaction I got to the following story I told in my first book, Happiness by Design: “A few weeks ago, I went out for dinner with one of my best friends, whom I have known for a long time. She works for a prestigious media company and basically spent the whole evening describing how miserable she was at work; she variously moaned about her boss, her colleagues, and her commute. At the end of dinner, and without a hint of irony, she said, ‘Of course, I love working at MediaLand.”
This story highlights the conflict between the social narrative of occupational status and personal experiences of happiness in the job, which will only be affected by occupational status when attention is drawn to it. A job that makes us miserable is not a good job, but we can convince ourselves it is if it has high status. MediaLand is somewhere my friend had always wanted to work, her parents were proud of her, and her friends were a little bit jealous. So the story she created for herself comes from the broader social narrative of status.
The social narrative surrounding status suggests that being a lawyer, for example, is a ‘better’ job than being, say, a florist. So surely a florist would be more likely to think about quitting their job than a lawyer would be? The former is lacking in economic status and the latter has plenty. But the MediaLand story also reminds us of another dimension on which one job might be ‘better’ than another: namely, how happy it makes them day to day. And it is here that florists seem to have better jobs than lawyers, with nearly nine out of ten florists agreeing that they are happy compared to only six out of ten lawyers. Some other professions whose members are happier than their bank accounts might suggest are the clergy, farmers and fitness instructors. There can be a lot of purpose in these roles (and quite a lot of pleasure too, if the fitness instructors I know are anything to go by).
There could be issues with the ‘selection effect’ in that those who choose careers like floristry, on average, might be happier to begin with than those who choose to go into law. Prospective florists, again on average, might also be less affected by the narrative of success than prospective lawyers. We need good longitudinal studies (which follow the same people over time) to find out more. It would also be very interesting to find out if there are differences in the concerns for recognition among people who seek out jobs associated with recognition. We might expect that many of those choosing careers as lawyers care more about what others think of them than those who choose careers analogous to being ‘just a florist’. We could expect that students at the LSE studying law will care more about status at work than those choosing to study anthropology, and that those who go to university care more about occupational status than those who choose not to go.
There are aspects of jobs like floristry, however, which make them more likely to generate happiness than working in a law firm. These include working with nature, regularly seeing the fruits of your labour, generally being around people who want to be with you, and feeling as though you have control over your workload. More than four out of five florists also say that they are able to hone their skills every day, according to the Legatum Institute report. So, I reckon that some of the happiness difference between florists and lawyers is caused by the ‘treatment effect’ of occupation. The same can be said for members of the clergy, farmers and fitness instructors. Focusing on the likely daily experiences of the jobs we choose to take can help us avoid the unnecessary pain and pointlessness that often accompany adherence to the narrative of what a ‘good’ job looks like.
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We could all do more to improve career choice and wellbeing at work. Schools and universities, the LSE included, could frame career choices in terms of personal growth rather than by which jobs will pay the most. They could encourage students to find out the answers to questions that are more likely to have an impact upon their day-to-day experiences on the job. How many hours does a typical employee work? Will I interact with other friendly human beings? Will I be expected to use one skill set or will there be an opportunity to use many different skills? How much autonomy is there in the work, and will I receive feedback? How long will my commute be? Is there a gym near the office? Does my office have natural light, windows that open and plants?
Employers have a role to play too. For example, we know that people are happier and more productive when their work is valued, and employers could do more to communicate positive and timely feedback to their employees. At a societal level – and I appreciate that this is a much greater challenge – we should look to create social narratives that encourage comparison to those whose jobs benefit society most, rather than to those with jobs that pay the most.