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Looking for satisfaction and happiness in a career? Start by choosing a job that helps others

April 17, 2007

People looking for jobs that bring satisfaction and happiness should concentrate on professions that focus primarily on serving other people, according to a new report from the University of Chicago, which found clergy to be the happiest and most satisfied of American workers.

“The most satisfying jobs are mostly professions, especially those involving caring for, teaching, and protecting others and creative pursuits,” said Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey (GSS) at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The survey is the most comprehensive of its kind to explore satisfaction and happiness among American workers. The GSS asks a large variety of questions of a representative sample of Americans in face-to-face interviews. In the 1988 to 2006 GSS surveys, interviewers asked people how satisfied they were with their jobs. The interviewers also asked them about their general level of happiness and Smith correlated those general happiness findings with the jobs people held. People’s feelings about their work usually have a significant impact on their happiness, he said.

Across all occupations, on average, 47 percent of people said they were very satisfied with their jobs and 33 percent said they were very happy. The top three jobs for satisfaction were clergy (87 percent reporting being very satisfied), firefighters (80 percent) and physical therapists (78 percent). Other top jobs, in which more than 60 percent of the respondents said they were very satisfied were education administrators, painters and sculpters, teachers, authors, psychologists, special education teachers, operating engineers, office supervisors and security and financial services salespersons.

Rev. Cynthia Lindner, Director of Ministry Studies at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, isn’t surprised by the finding. “Persons engaged in ministry have great opportunity to live and work out of their deepest convictions, oftentimes in the midst of communities of faith who share their concern for meaning, compassion and justice,” she said. “This congruence of belief, values, and actions in one’s daily work can be immensely satisfying.”

Smith said that the least satisfying dozen jobs are mostly low-skill, manual and service occupations, especially involving customer service and food/beverage preparation and serving.

The least satisfying jobs were held by roofers, with only 25 percent of them saying they found their job satisfying. The other low satisfaction jobs were held by waiters and servers, laborers (except construction trades), bartenders, handpackers and packagers, freight, stock and material handlers, apparel clothing salespersons, cashiers, food preparers (excluding cooks and chefs), expeditors (customer service representatives), butchers and meat cutters, and furniture and home furnishing salespersons.

On the happiness scale, clergy were also on top, with 67 percent very happy. Two other top three jobs on happiness were firefighters and transportation ticket and reservation agents (both 57 percent very happy). Other jobs high on the happiness scale were architects, special education teachers, actors and directors, science technicians, mechanics and repairers, industrial engineers, airline pilots and navigators, hardware and building supplies salespersons and personal housekeepers.

On the bottom of the scale were garage and service station attendants (13 percent reported being happy), roofers (14 percent) and molding and casting machine operators (11 percent). Other workers who said they are generally unhappy were construction laborers, welfare service aides, amusement and recreation attendants, hotel maids, pressing machine operators, electronic repairers, kitchen workers, and machine operators. Previous work had shown that job satisfaction increases with prestige or social standings, and many of the people reporting high satisfaction and happiness also had jobs respected by society, Smith said. Some workers whose jobs have a high degree of prestige, however, such as doctors and lawyers, did not make the list of the top twelve most satisfied or happy. Those jobs also involve great responsibility and large opportunities for stress, Smith said.

The General Social Survey, supported by the National Science Foundation, has been conducted since 1972, and is based on interviews of randomly selected people who represent a scientifically accurate cross section of Americans. A total of 27,587 people were interviewed for the job satisfaction and happiness portion of the survey. Unlike opinion polls, which ask people about topics related to current events, the GSS captures changes in opinion to issues that remain of enduring importance in society.

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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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