Who are the Happiest Workers?

There may not be such a thing as the perfect job, yet a surprising number of Americans are satisfied with their job, whether due to their profession or their workplace. In fact, many workers love their jobs despite (and sometimes because of) the challenges they face every day. Here we look at some of the common characteristics shared by happy employees and the factors that influence worker satisfaction.

Work can be a struggle, but that doesn’t mean it should make us unhappy. In fact, many employees love their jobs despite the difficulties they face at work, and although everyone experiences a bad day from time to time, happy workers are able to overcome these temporary setbacks and enjoy their position. Moreover, positive feelings about work are becoming increasingly important in the business world.

“With companies struggling to survive in a competitive economy, and engaged in a war for talent, the problems of recruitment, retention and employee engagement of productive employees are critical,” Psychology Today’s Wired for Success blog explains. “No less critical is the recognition that a happy workplace can have a significant impact on business results and success.”

In a Gallup survey last year, 48 percent of workers in the United States reported being “completely satisfied” with their job, slightly below the 50 percent who said the same in 2009 but above the 39 percent to 43 percent readings in most years between 2001 and 2006. As a whole, U.S. workers have generally become happier with their jobs over the past decade.

So what are the reasons for happiness at work, and how can we use them to learn to take pleasure in our jobs? Gallup found that the most satisfying factors at work are physical safety (78 percent), relations with coworkers (70 percent), schedule flexibility (64 percent), vacation time (60 percent), relations with a boss (58 percent), workload (55 percent), job security (51 percent) and recognition for accomplishments (49 percent).

Since 2001, worker satisfaction ratings have particularly increased for physical safety conditions (+13 percent), work recognition (+10 percent), vacation time (+8 percent), workload (+8 percent) and chances for promotion (+8 percent). The only satisfaction factor that has decreased since 2001 is job security, which fell 3 percentage points, while stress continues to be a major factor in dissatisfaction.

“Stress has consistently ranked near the bottom in Gallup’s annual worker satisfaction ratings, trading off with pay for last place,” Gallup reports. “The potentially good news offsetting this is that workers continue to be largely content with their bosses, and with their coworker relations.”

Apart from the individual factors influencing worker satisfaction, happiness levels also vary between job roles and industries. A separate Gallup survey found that business owners ranked highest on the well-being index, with a reading of 73.3 in 2010. In addition, 94.2 percent of business owners reported being satisfied with their work.

“Despite the inherent challenges of owning one’s own business, the opportunity to choose a vocation that is optimally aligned with the worker’s natural talent is likely a key factor in these results,” Gallup explains. “Clerical workers have the lowest score on being able to use their strengths at work, while those in manufacturing have the lowest job satisfaction score.”

Oddly enough, higher earnings do not necessarily result in greater happiness among workers. According to Newsweek, research indicates that happiness increases dramatically when someone moves from poverty into the middle class, but salary increases past that point often have little to no effect on a person’s happiness level. However, there is still a strong connection between wealth and happiness.

“Curiously, although money doesn’t buy happiness, happiness can buy money,” Newsweek explains. “Young people who describe themselves as happy typically earn higher incomes, years later, than those who said they were unhappy. It seems that a sense of well-being can make you more productive and more likely to show initiative and other traits that lead to a higher income.”

If happiness boosts earnings, how can we boost happiness? While there are several measures that can be taken to increase happiness, unfortunately, one of the major factors influencing it is out of our control.

“The best predictor of job satisfaction is age,” Tom W. Smith, head of the polling center at the University of Chicago, tells the Washington Post. “[P]eople in their 50s are usually the most gratified by their work, as they have found a field they do well in, been promoted and are given a degree of autonomy on the job.”

Autonomy is a crucial component in work-related happiness because it allows us to decide how we want to apportion our time, making our work feel more meaningful. Work-life balance blog Study Hacks identifies two additional components: competence, which enables a worker to attain the outcomes he or she desires from work; and relatedness, which refers to a feeling of connection with others in the organization. Balancing these three elements is at the core of being happy with one’s job.

“This explains, for example, why there are so many CEOs in the world who are excellent at what they do, but also stressed, anxious and unhappy,” Study Hacks says. “They generated career capital by becoming excellent at management, but instead of cashing it in to satisfy the needs that we know would make them happy, they instead bartered for increased prestige and income. The strict demands of the job sap their feeling of autonomy, while their sense of relatedness dissipates with the late-night work binges.”

The ability to transform work responsibilities into sources of happiness can be a vital asset to a line worker, a manager and the business as a whole. According to Forbes’ CSR Blog, “Studies show that positive employees outperform negative employees in terms of productivity, sales, energy levels, turnover rates and health care costs.” In addition, “optimistic sales people outperform their pessimistic counterparts by up to 37 percent. People who expressed more positive emotions while negotiating business deals did so more effectively and successfully than those who were more neutral or negative.”

This means that the tangible elements of generating happiness — autonomy, competence and worker relations — should also be business priorities. When workers enjoy their jobs, they have a tendency to work harder, be more productive, generate more revenue for their organization and earn more over the course of their careers.


Still Employed…Still Dissatisfied

Why Having Engaged Employees Matters

The Impact of Job Satisfaction


How Workplace Happiness Can Boost Productivity
by Ray B. Williams
Wired for Success (Psychology Today), July 20, 2010

On-the-Job Stress is U.S. Workers’ Biggest Complaint
by Lydia Saad
Gallup, Aug. 30, 2010

Business Owners Still Lead in Wellbeing Among Job Types
by Dan Witters
Gallup, Sept. 6, 2010

Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness
by Sharon Begley
Newsweek, Oct. 15, 2007

Results of Polls on Job Satisfaction are at Odds
by Carol Morello
Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2010

Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do
Study Hacks, Jan. 23, 2010

The Social Responsibility to Generate Employee Happiness
by Nicole Skibola
The CSR Blog (Forbes), Nov. 4, 2010


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  • Grayson Porter
    March 1, 2011

    Your article made me try to remember the last time I worked on a job that made me feel happy with the work. I was building a multi-million-dollar transportation claims department for GE as a vendor slave making peanuts. Before that, I was pretty content shutting down mafia-owned trucking companies in Nuevo Laredo and the Ports of NY/NJ with full-bore freight bill auditing – again – for peanuts.

    But, overall, I haven’t been happy with anyplace I’ve worked since my return from the Peace Corps in 1987. Every time I found a work environment I could excel in, the pay was not commensurate and less-skilled co-workers (usually younger white males with lighter degrees) made 10%-25% more than I did… while I was expected to fix their process and communication clusters. By the time I became an entrepreneur in 2006, I had become totally disillusioned with every aspect of working for corporations – especially the team buildings.

    OMG. You cannot imagine what torture the team buildings are. I heard on NPR last week that people who force themselves to smile are less healthy mentally and significantly less happy.

    Well, someone should have told that nut job who lined us up in two lines – paired off face to face – and instructed us to tell the person in front of us about something that made us very uncomfortable emotionally. When the bell rang, each line was told to step in the opposite direction so we would line up in front of a new person. Then we would think of another uncomfortable emotional situation to tell the new person in front of us.

    Well, we had 10 people in that line and I ran out after 3. The same thing happened to everyone else, so we just stood there and told each other how much we hated the fact that when this particular trainer was hired, our raises went down and the bonuses turned into movie tickets. In low voices, we mentioned how we felt the entire thing to be invasive and unnecessary. We reiterated to each other that all we really wanted was a 9-5pm job that we could do well and then leave. And then there was the fact that she was getting $23,000 every 3 weeks for the duration (10 weeks).

    After those trainings started, turnover increased to 70% in the first 6 months and it stayed that way for the next 5 years. The trainings became some kind of psyche deal to get people to think about work harder and longer. Which was unavoidable because we were all defined as professionals and paid as exempt employees – on salary and hemorrhaging overtime (avg 150 – 500 hrs per year unpaid).

    I’m sure there are happy workers out there. They just haven’t done the math yet. If your raise is within 2% points of COLA, you’re treading water.

  • Bev Newton
    March 3, 2011

    I am very happy with my job. I have had terrible jobs in the past that I made the most of. My current job as a Manufacturing Designer/Technologist is very challenging and constantly changing, which are two of the things I love most about it.

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