Sunday, June 17, 2012

Top 10 Happiest Jobs and The American Dream

Was Bob Ross really that happy? Despite finding a family of raccoons evidently nesting in his afro, he certainly seems to have maintained a positive outlook.
"The powerful motivator in our lives isn't money;
it's the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities,
contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements." 

 Frederick Herzberg

I made a big headline out of Herzberg's quote not because I'm convinced he's right, but because I'm not entirely convinced. There's some truth to the notion that we are fanatically dedicated to our beliefs precisely because they are in doubt. Nobody's 100% dedicated to something they have complete confidence in. You don't see anyone standing on a soapbox shouting that the sun is going to come up tomorrow.

Having spent the last two days in a cramped closet painting over-sized faux malachite in oil, I'm not sure I'm in the right frame of mind. I can barely blink my eyes at the same time. I'm more likely to wake up in my car somewhere near Newark airport with a cop shining a torch at me, followed by high-speed chase and death by fireball.

So I was interested in a recent study that claims these results in Job Satisfaction:
Top Occupations in Job Satisfaction
1. Clergy [87.2%]
2. Firefighters [80.1%]
3. Physical Therapists [78.1%]
4. Authors [74.2%]
5. Special Education Teachers [70.1%]
6. Teachers [69.2%]
7. Education Administrators [68.4%]
8. Painter, Sculptors, Related [67.3%]
9. Psychologists [66.9%]
10. Security and Financial Services Salespersons [65.4%]
Number 8 was interesting, of course. If you combine this study with the one that says 'Business Owner' is the Number 1, then I should be playing the pan pipes, skipping to work and reciting poetry about unicorns. Business Owner and Painter? The Perfect Storm of double happiness. Wahoo.

On the other hand, as a decorative painter I'm equal parts 'painter' and 'construction laborer', of which the study says:

"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." 

Oh well. Back to the front.

Aristotle spent a lot of time thinking about stuff [you heard it here first]. His guiding question was always 'what is the best thing for a human being?' His answer: happiness. "Happiness," he wrote, "is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world." James Skeen writes that "when Aristotle talks about happiness he is not talking about the mere psychological satisfaction that comes when we get what we want.  He is talking about human flourishing, a thriving that is based on moral and intellectual excellence." 

What is it about a happy face that makes me want to punch things?

But what exactly is the greater issue here? You might be tempted to draw a common thread through the list above, but it'd be a tenuous one. Priests, Firefighters and Teachers could be said to be working for some greater good. Authors and Painters? Maybe it's down to freedom of expression leading to contentment, or just the ability to hang out in your underwear all day long.

“This congruence of belief, values, and actions in one’s daily work can be immensely satisfying," says Rev. Cynthia Linder. “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 American Dream?

Or perhaps it's simpler than all that. Perhaps money does buy you happiness: While one poll of 'happy' countries shows a correlation between the wealth of it's populace and their general level of well-being, it shouldn't be surprising that another poll "finds countries with the highest well-being tend to be the most peaceful countries in the world and those with the lowest well-being are the least likely to be peaceful." [A Worldwide study of well-being by Gallup shows a high of 72% in Denmark to a low of 1% in Chad].

Renowned British economist Richard Layard published a book last year called (not surprisingly) "Happiness" in which he discussed one of the surprising results of a bunch of tests he ran: money doesn't make people happier. The only time people's subjective well-being rises as a result of cash is when the money takes them out of poverty. Middle-class people who become upper-class, however, don't report feeling any happier.

Despite our becoming generally wealthier as a country, Americans are known to be a lot less satisfied with their jobs than they were 30 years ago. It seems that it's not enough to simply still have a job in a recession, we all want more.

 "As it turns out, when a nation’s GDP rises above $10,000.00 per capita there is no relationship between GDP and happiness." [source]

I remember reading about a study done on a bunch of kids. Before the study started, they were asked to rate their 'happiness' on a 1-10 scale. They voted about a 6. They were then told that they were each to be given a free gift. Yay! They had to reach into a bag and blindly pick out a surprise. There was one gift for each child. Once they'd each taken a turn at the grab-bag and claimed their gift, they were polled once again for happiness. This time, Their happiness came in at about a 4.

What had happened? Despite the fact that they were now materially richer than they were a couple of minutes ago, they were less happy. If they'd been left completely alone, they'd have been happier. Perhaps they were now in a position of having made a personal choice, and confronted with the realization that they had chosen poorly and were now jealous of the people around them. If the choice had been made for them (or if they were never part of the study to begin with), it'd have been smoother sailing.

The kind of happiness referred to in the study above is a crass, low-minded want/satisfaction duality where saint and criminal can be equally satisfied, but it still made me wonder whether the spoiled modern dissatisfaction with our lot has something to do with this way of thinking. 

We all want to be captains of our own destiny, but there's a certain existential price that comes with that: What if we've taken the wrong path? Unfortunately, we aren't given a window on our lives like Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, so it's impossible to discern whether or not we've made the 'right' choice.

source: H. Arnold Barton, A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840—1940

European governments, worried that their best young people would leave for America, distributed posters like this to frighten them. This 1869 Swedish anti-emigration poster contrasts Per Svensson's dream of the American idyll (left) and the reality of his life in the wilderness (above right), where he is menaced by a mountain lion, a big snake, and wild Indians who are scalping and disemboweling someone.

Richard Wilkinson, a British professor of social epidemiology, recently stated on PBS NewsHour, "if you want to live the American dream, you should move to Finland or Denmark, which have much higher social mobility."

"Americans may be deeply divided about what ails our country, but there's no denying we're a nation of unhappy campers." Kerry Trueman writes. "Danes, on the other hand, consistently rank as some of the happiest people in the world, a fact attributed at least in part to Denmark's legendary income equality and strong social safety net."

But I can't help feeling like this chatter is all getting a bit vague and obtuse. What if I just run off and join the clergy? They're at the top of the list. Would that make me happy? Maybe. 

That and huge bag of cash.


  1. Hi Alan -

    If you worked in the Vatican Bank, perhaps you could be in the clergy and have your own bag of money, too.

    I think most Americans have misinterpretted what "the Pursuit of Happiness" means. I remember that a reporter once asked John F. Kennedy if being President made him happy, and JFK responded by saying (and I'm paraphrasing), "If you mean in the original Greek definition of the word, which is to realize those things of which you're capable, yes." (This was a quick reply at a press conference.)

  2. First of all I love this post, secondly I am an author of four books and a professional artist / business owner and I can say without doubt that when I am making money I am much happier! When I am working 18 hours a day writing, illustrating, or designing and stuff isn't selling I am not as happy as when the checks are flowing in. That being said, if asked I would rate my happiness at about an 8.5, and say that I love my job and would not change it for anything. I'm just much happier ( 9 or 9.5 ) when I am in the black and I can pay my bills with a bit left over for life's little luxuries!

  3. Trying to do creative work and living on a tight budget is really tough. I still think you can be happy, I have to be living proof. :) Perhaps there is something to the clergy being happy and the similarity between prayer and meditation. Aren't those Buddhist monks some of the happiest people on the planet:

    1. Hey Heather,

      Thanks for the link. I enjoyed that. I hope I didn't give the wrong impression with the post: I'm not gloomy! :)

  4. I think in the last 30+ years advertising has become more prevalent and so saturated that Americans are brainwashed into believing they don't have everything they want and their lives are somehow lacking. There is more debt because there is more stuff being sold to poor slobs who cannot stand to do without, because ads keep telling them they are missing something. Yet if you ask many couples about their "salad days" when they had nothing, they were happier. I travel a lot in Europe and I rarely see people there with a TV in every room and garages full of stuff that won't fit into the house. People I meet there don't seem to be as down on themselves as Americans are.

    For me happiness and especially being happy with my art and my business, has a lot to do with struggle, accomplishment, and seeing a never-ending path to more opportunities to struggle more, learn and accomplish more.

  5. btw about those obnoxious smiley faces-
    from Wikipedia:
    "In 1963 Harvey Ball, an American commercial artist, was employed by State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts (now known as Hanover Insurance) to create a happy face to raise the morale of the employees. Ball created the design in ten minutes and was paid 45 dollars."

    As kid I remember it as the symbol of the Summer of Love but it all went so wrong so quickly afterwards that seeing the darn thing still gives me a bit of rash.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Lynne.

    On a list of countries that spend the most money, Americans spend more than the next 26 countries combined (25 of whom are our allies, by the way). I'm not exactly sure what the significance of that is, but it might have something to do with "the pursuit of happiness."

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