4 Surprising Factors that Lead to Happiness at Work

woman holding money

Did you know that a bigger paycheck doesn’t automatically lead to more happiness at work? Now, as my husband likes to say, having more money does mean you can be miserable in a better part of town. But you’re not always happier.

Surprisingly, It’s not the money, or the executive title, or the penthouse office with the view, although those things never hurt.

What are the factors that result in more personal satisfaction and happiness at work?

I’ve spent a few days reading up on what science has to say about happiness at work. (Sources listed below)

What does the current research tell us about motivation and personal satisfaction at work? What should we look for in a job or career to decide if it will make us happy? Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Most of us believe that we need to just follow our passion and discover that one path that leads to the perfect career. Once we “find our passion,” we will blissfully head off to work every Monday morning with energy and excitement, a bounce in our step and a latte in our hand. But if you look at the research, that’s not exactly what we find.  

The four factors most often cited as essential for personal satisfaction at work are not specific to a particular kind of work. They are more generic  - things that can be achieved in almost any profession. But they are not always found in every workplace.  Take a look and see how your current job measures up.

The first one we’ll talk about is autonomy - the feeling that you have control over your day and that your actions are important.

Researchers found that as a worker’s control over how a job is done increases, the level of job satisfaction also increases. Even a small amount of control led to a big jump in satisfaction. What kind of control do you have over your work? Are you involved in making decisions about what you will do each day and how you will do it? Do you have control over how you structure your time?

The fact is that autonomy is hard to find in entry level jobs. As we develop and move forward in our career, the level of autonomy often increases. That’s why the next factor is important.

Next up is mastery or competence. This is the feeling that you are good at what you do or that you are improving your skills and getting really good at what you do.

Mastery leads to personal satisfaction, especially if you are recognized by others at being good at what you do - whether it’s being the best in the office at creating an excel spreadsheet or arguing a case in front of a jury. .

The truth is that when you know you are damn good at what you do, you feel good doing it. 

And in most jobs, as you become better at what you do, you are rewarded with more control over your job tasks and responsibilities - more autonomy. Now you have two things to feel good about at work - mastery and autonomy.

The third factor that leads to happiness at work is relatedness - the feeling of connection to other people.

This is a no-brainer. If you like the people you work with, you’re going to enjoy work more. If you have a sense of connection and trust with co-workers, job satisfaction takes a big leap forward. But it’s often the hardest to predict in choosing a job. You often don’t know until you have worked with the team or your co-workers for a few months if you’ve signed up with a group of kindred spirits or a team of complete jerks.

The fourth factor is a sense of purpose - knowing that your actions make a difference in some way that is important to you.

Whether it’s knowing that your job helps someone in crisis or leads to long term solutions to current problems, or simply understanding that your job contributes to the health and well-being of your family, recognizing that your work has a positive purpose leads to a sense of inner satisfaction. You have the feeling that the work you do matters in some bigger way. Your work is more than just a paycheck. It’s important.

You don’t have to have a job saving the whales or curing cancer. Any job where you feel like you are making a positive difference in someone’s life can give you a purpose - a reason to get out of bed on Monday morning. Even if you’re sweeping the floor in a factory (do people still do that?), you can feel that you’re contributing to the well-being of those around you.

So that’s it:

  • Autonomy

  • Mastery

  • Relatedness or Connection to Others

  • Purpose

How does your job measure up?


  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newton

  • Drive by Daniel Pink

  • The Effects of Autonomy on Job Satisfaction, Tanya Robertson in Chron https://work.chron.com/effects-autonomy-job-satisfaction-14677.html

  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182-185.


Anita Flowers is a Board Certified career and life coach at Blue Sage Career Strategies. A little different than most life coaches, Anita’s background in clinical psychology and years of experience as a counselor gives her a rich understanding of human development and family dynamics. Her work history includes 13 years working with an international business company and 12 years doing individual and family counseling as well as career counseling. This blend of counseling and business experience gives Anita a unique perspective on the world of work and life. Anita works with people literally all over the world to help them discover a life and career they love.   Contact Anita here to get started on your new career and life!