By: Robert H. Frank
Social scientists have been trying to identify the conditions most likely to promote satisfying human lives. Their findings give some important clues about choosing a career: Money matters, but as the economist Richard Easterlin and others have demonstrated, not always in the ways you may think.
Consider this thought experiment. Suppose you had to choose between two parallel worlds that were alike except that people in one had significantly higher incomes. If you occupied the same position in the income distribution in both — say, as a median earner — there would be compelling reasons for choosing the richer world. After all, societies with higher incomes tend also to enjoy cleaner air and water, better schools, less noisy environments, safer working conditions, longer life expectancy and many other obvious benefits.
But context also matters. If you faced a choice between being a relatively low earner in a high-income society or being near the top in a society in which your income was lower in absolute terms, the answer would be less clear.
If the income difference was very small, being a top earner in the poorer world would probably be more satisfying. Your house would be smaller in absolute terms, but because it would be bigger than most other people’s, you would be more likely to regard it as adequate.
For sufficiently large income differences, however, that conclusion could easily flip. This time you would confront a different kind of difficulty. Although your house in the wealthier world would be larger in absolute terms, its relatively small size in that universe would mean that your children would be more likely to attend schools regarded there as substandard.
It’s not just that more money doesn’t provide a straightforward increase in happiness. Social science research also underscores the importance of focusing carefully on the many ways in which jobs differ along dimensions other than pay. As economists have long known, jobs that offer more attractive working conditions — greater autonomy, for example, or better opportunities for learning, or enhanced workplace safety — also tend to pay less.
One of the most important dimensions of job satisfaction is how you feel about your employer’s mission. Suppose you’re weighing two offers for jobs writing advertising copy: One is for an American Cancer Society campaign to discourage teenage smoking, the other for a tobacco industry campaign to encourage it.
If pay and other working conditions were identical, which job would you choose? I once posed this question to Cornell seniors about to enter the job market, and almost 90 percent said they would pick the American Cancer Society position. And when I asked them how much more the pro-tobacco job would have to pay before they would change their minds, they demanded an average salary premium of more than 80 percent.
These magnitudes make sense. When most people leave work each evening, they feel better if they have made the world better in some way, or at least haven’t made it worse.
But moral satisfaction alone won’t pay the rent. You’ll be more likely to land a job that offers attractive working conditions and pays well if you can develop deep expertise at a task that people value highly. As the economist Philip Cook and I have argued, those who become really good at what they do are capturing a much larger share of total income in almost every domain, leaving correspondingly smaller shares available for others. Moral: Become an expert at something!
That’s obviously easier said than done. The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his co-authors have estimated that many thousands of hours of difficult practice are required for true expertise at any task. That’s why my first response when students seek advice on how to succeed is to ask whether any activity has ever absorbed them completely. Most answer affirmatively. I then suggest that they prepare themselves for a career that entails tasks as similar as possible to that activity, even if it doesn’t normally lead to high financial rewards. I tell them not to worry about the money.
My point is that becoming an expert is so challenging that you are unlikely to expend the necessary effort unless the task is one that you love for its own sake. If it is, the process will be rewarding apart from whether it leads to high pay.
The happiness literature has identified one of the most deeply satisfying human psychological states to be one called “flow.” It occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose track of the passage of time. If you can land a job that enables you to experience substantial periods of flow, you will be among the most fortunate people on the planet. What’s more, as the years pass, you will almost surely develop deep expertise at whatever it is you’ve been doing.
At that point, even if few people in any one location place high value on what you do, you may find that your services become extremely valuable economically. That’s because technology has steadily extended the geographic reach of those who are best at what they do. If even a tiny fraction of a sufficiently large group of buyers cares about your service, you may be worth a fortune.
There is, of course, no guarantee that you’ll become the best at what you choose to do, or that even if you do you’ll find practical ways to extend your reach enough to earn a big paycheck. But by choosing to concentrate on a task you love, you’ll enjoy the considerable proportion of your life that you spend at work, which is much more than billions of others can say.
Again, you’ll have bills to pay, so salary matters. But social science findings establish clearly that once you have met your basic obligations, it’s possible to live a very satisfying life even if you don’t earn a lot of money.
The bottom line: Resist the soul-crushing job’s promise of extra money and savor the more satisfying conditions you’ll find in one that pays a little less.