Leaving your job because you’re dissatisfied with the work you’re doing seems reasonable, but if you haven’t given thought to what would actually make you happy, you might end up in the same dissatisfying situation. It’s worth spending some time figuring out what you actually like about your job before making any moves. Take some time to figure out which parts of your job are the ones that bring you the most joy. That way, as you think about your future, you can best strategize about new positions you might want to aim for. To help you along the way, here are three questions that will provide you with valuable insight into the best parts of your work life.
The pandemic led many people to consider why they work, and millions of people changed jobs during the resulting Great Resignation. It’s not clear, though, that changing jobs actually allowed people to increase their happiness or satisfaction with the work they do.
Leaving your job because you’re dissatisfied with the work you’re doing seems reasonable, but if you haven’t given thought to what would actually make you happy, you might end up in the same dissatisfying situation. It’s worth spending some time figuring out what you actually like about your job before making any moves.
To engage in that exercise, start by distinguishing between happiness and satisfaction and exploring which aspects of your job relate to each of these emotions. From there, figure out which parts of your job are the ones that bring you the most joy. That way, as you think about your future, you can best strategize about new positions you might want to aim for. To help you along the way, here are three questions that will provide you with valuable insight into the best parts of your work life.
1. Where do I find the most satisfaction? Is it in the process of doing my work or in the final outcome?
We often use the words happiness and satisfaction without reflecting on the differences between them. Happiness is a momentary experience that reflects the positive feelings that result from pursuing some desirable outcome. Satisfaction is a positive feeling that reflects a longer time horizon in which you’re pleased with what you’ve achieved over a period of time.
These emotions are related to two components of your work: There’s the day-to-day work that you do (the process of your work), and then there’s the set of things you achieve as a result of your efforts (the outcome). The process of your work affects your daily happiness with what you do, while the outcome is typically associated with your sense of satisfaction.
Because the process of your work is associated with happiness, it affects your day-to-day interest in the work you’re doing. When you like the particular tasks that are part of your job, you look forward to engaging with those elements of your work, and you’re motivated to increase your skills in the areas where you find the specific duties enjoyable. Conversely, if you find a lot of the tasks unpleasant, you may dread those aspects of the work. There’s a particular satisfaction that comes from performing well on elements of your job that you find intrinsically rewarding.
The outcome of your work relates to the mission of the organization you’re working for. Do you believe in that mission? Do you believe your efforts are making the world a better place? When you work toward a significant outcome and make progress on it, you feel a sense of satisfaction with the work you’re doing.
Research suggests that taking pride in the outcome of your work provides long-term satisfaction with it. Even on the days when you know you have to engage in some unpleasant tasks, the knowledge that you’re doing them in service of an important outcome is a valuable motivator. Paradoxically, if you engage in a lot of tasks you don’t enjoy in service of an important goal, you may feel a lot of satisfaction in your work, even though it doesn’t bring you much happiness.
Ultimately, when you reflect on your work, you should think about both the happiness it brings you as well as the long-term satisfaction.
2. How do my values align with my work?
After you identify the aspects of your job that you like, try to understand why those aspects of work are appealing. This evaluation is rooted in your values.
Values reflect key aspects of what people think is important about their life and work. Your work needs to align with your values. If you value helping others, then the mission of the work may be a critical component to whether you appreciate your job. If you value pleasure in life, then your daily happiness at work (reflected in the particular tasks you do) will be central to helping you to live up to that value. If you value achievement or power, then your personal accomplishments at work will influence your satisfaction with your job.
Shalom Schwartz identified 10 core human values that are consistent across many cultures: self-direction, stimulation, hedonism, achievement, power, security, conformity, tradition, benevolence, and universalism. The ones people adopt and the ways they act on them reflect both the culture in which they were raised as well as individual decisions they make. Taking a values survey can help you understand the aspects of your job that bring you satisfaction. In addition, because research suggests that values can evolve, it’s important to track yours over time. For example, early in your career you may value achievement, so you might enjoy aspects of your job that bring you individual recognition, while later in your career, you may value benevolence and derive more satisfaction from aspects of your job that enable you to help others. That shift in values will alter which parts of your job you find enjoyable.
3. What do I want to be able to say I’ve accomplished?
You’ve probably heard the saying that nobody lies on their death bed wishing they had spent more time at the office. But whether that’s true for you depends a lot on your answers to the questions in the previous sections.
Alignment of your work with your values means considering not just the particular tasks you do daily, but also the accumulated influence of those tasks over time (or what you might think of as your legacy). To think about legacy, take advantage of the remarkable human ability to project yourself mentally to your retirement and look back. What do you want your work to have been about? Do you think that the path you are on currently will support having that impact? Will this impact fit with your values?
You should use this alignment between your values and the processes and outcomes of your work to evaluate your current work trajectory. You should focus both on whether you currently feel like your work aligns with those values, but also to explore what future positions might also help you to be satisfied with your work.
If you feel like your work and current trajectory will enable you to continue feeling that alignment between your job and your values, then focus on your current career trajectory. But, if you have a significant mismatch, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to think about alternatives. If you’re unsure about how to find a path that fits with your values, it might be time to talk to a career coach. Just make sure to find one who is committed to helping you find that alignment.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision-making, and motivation. His most recent book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).