The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love

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.

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