A high salary can make you more unhappy, while jobs that start off interesting don’t always remain so, says Rhymer Rigby
It’s the topic of a thousand dinner party conversations. Is it better to have a job which pays very well or a job that is genuinely interesting? Do you want people to say, “Wow, that’s cool” when you tell them what your chosen vocation is? Or do you want to go on holiday in the Maldives and drive a Range Rover Sport?
The conventional thinking on money and job satisfaction comes from a theory developed by the psychologist Frederick Herzberg . He proposed that there were two sets of factors in the workplace. One group, known as motivators, cause satisfaction. These are things like achievement, advancement and interest in work. The other group, called hygiene factors, cause dissatisfaction if they are absent – and salary is part of this group. So, if you don’t earn enough you will be dissatisfied. But once you earn enough, extra money counts for very little.
In fact, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University, a higher salary may actually make you less happy. “You’ll be giving up things like time with your family and friends in order to earn the extra money.” The answer might seem obvious, then. Find a job that is interesting and where you earn enough, but don’t worry about about earning a vast salary because the Range Rover won’t make you happy if you never have time to see your girlfriend.
However, context is hugely important. If you live in an ultra-expensive city such as London or New York, “enough” may be well into six figures. So you may have considerably more latitude when it comes to an interesting job if you’re based in Bristol or Leeds. Equally, if your friends are high-earning bankers and lawyers, you may experience far more salary-related dissatisfaction than you would if they were teachers. Time of life is important too. “If you’re divorced and have no kids then you might be far happier working all hours to earn a huge salary,” says Prof Cooper.
There are also gender differences. “We did some research which showed that 18 per cent of people were mainly motivated by money,” says Ian Gooden, CEO of the HR consultancy Chiumento . “But men are twice as likely to be motivated by money than women and this is particularly true of men under 35.” So, working in the City until your mid 30s and then going to do something interesting that pays less is actually a very smart idea, in terms of your happiness.
Money can cause satisfaction and dissatisfaction in other ways too. We tend to benchmark ourselves against our peers. So if you get a £1m bonus, you’ll be pleased – unless Mike, who sits next to you, gets a £1.5m bonus. To anyone on a normal salary, this may sound ridiculous – but it’s not actually about the money, it’s about the recognition. The extra £500,000 says that Mike performed 50% better than you and that’s what’s making you unhappy.
Gooden warns that it’s also very easy to get trapped in high-earning jobs. “You get the phenomenon of ‘economic prisoners’ where you wind up stuck in a job you hate because you need the salary to support your lifestyle.” You can’t turn round to your partner and explain that you’re going to take the kids out of private school and move to a smaller house because you hate your career. “There is no acceptable way out,” he says.
What about an interesting job, then? On the face of things, doing something that stimulates and interests you should be far more positive than going for the big bucks. However, while this is mostly true, there are downsides to cool jobs.
For starters, people often go into sectors because they’re widely viewed as being interesting and not because they personally find the job in question interesting. Thus, you might get a job in the media, when actually you’d be much happier (and probably better paid) working in IT because what really motivates you is solving problems. So you need to think hard and honestly about what interests you.
Bear in mind too that, when it comes to interest, all jobs to some extent revert to the norm. What you loved when you joined can easily become just work three years down the line, especially if you are the kind of person who sees work as a means to an end. Moreover, as you rise through the ranks, you often move away from what makes your job interesting and into general management, which is pretty similar whatever sector you’re in.
You often see this with people who work in tech: they don’t want to be promoted because they want to do the interesting stuff, not manage people. “Be very careful about letting go of what interests you for more money,” says Gooden. In fact, he adds, while there is a common belief that we should all aim as high as possible at work, “Not many people are motivated by really demanding jobs.”
So, is it more important to earn a lot of money or have an interesting job? The answer is that you need to step back and ask yourself what is important to you – while reminding yourself that your work does not exist in isolation. However, we can say that earning vastly in excess of what you need is not likely to make you happy – and if you have the choice between a job that interests you and pays enough and one that doesn’t interest you and pays far more, you should go for the former.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that one of the most significant contributors towards happiness at work is not related to how interesting your job is or how much it pays. “Relationships at work are so important,” says Prof Cooper, “especially your relationship with your line manager.” In fact, if you hate your boss, you’ll probably still be miserable, even if your job is both fascinating and well-paid.