According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in the month of April. Let that sink in for a moment. During a moment of perceived economic and health insecurity, 4 million people living in the U.S. decided they weren’t going back to work. Anthony Klotz, an organizational psychologist from Texas A.M University, calls this “the Great Resignation”. As described in the previous post on motivation, the pandemic created the perfect conditions for allowing people a psychological “reset” or “fresh start”. Disruptions often force people to evaluate their normal routines and consider what types of changes they want to make in their lives. Considering that people spend at least 1/3 of their adult lives working, it would make sense that people would contemplate employment related changes. But what types of job-related changes should people be making? Should you quit a lower paying job for a higher paying one? Is finding meaningful work a pipe dream? To answer these questions, it is helpful to turn to the field of positive psychology, a field focused on the science of happiness.
By now many people have heard that money can bring you happiness, but only to a certain point. Research suggests that after 75,000 dollars, more money does not bring more happiness. Just as with any research finding, this has a lot of nuances such as the cost of living where you live, how much debt you carry, etc. But the important point here is that you do not have to be in the top 10 percent of income earners to be happy with your life. The reason for this is that people quickly adapt to their situations, whether it’s a positive or negative change. This tendency is called the hedonic treadmill. Financial instability is stressful so if you are not making 75,000 dollars, finding a higher paying job will likely reduce the anxiety related to getting your basic needs met. If you meet this threshold, it may be worthwhile to consider other factors when deciding on what you want in a job.
Studies show that people who believe their work is “meaningful” are happier than people who do not believe they are engaging in meaningful work. Indeed, many people are willing to forgo more money to engage in work that they consider to be important or worthwhile. Of course, whether you are engaging in meaningful work can be highly subjective. As such, whether people see their work as meaningful is a matter of perception. David Graeber, the late anthropologist from the London School of Economics, has put forth the idea that society has structured itself in a way where over half of existing jobs are “bullshit”. His theory outlines the 5 different types of professions that he believes constitute “bullshit jobs”. Graeber was an academic, and as a former academic myself, I can understand his cynicism. Graeber’s estimate of the number of bullshit jobs might actually be too low. A recent Gallup poll found that, in fact, only 13 percent of all adults report that they find their jobs meaningful. His theory has gained a lot of traction among scholars and holds a particular appeal for people eager to define themselves outside of their jobs or careers. Graeber’s idea of “bullshit” jobs gives us permission to view our jobs as a job and not as an indication of our worth. If you do not find your work meaningful, you are far from being alone.
Some have argued that working less increases happiness. When we look at countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the happiest countries (Finland, Norway, Iceland), have the lowest hours worked annually while the unhappiest countries have the highest hours worked annually. There are other factors to consider, however, as this relationship is a relatively modest one. It is likely that the relationship is a U-shaped one. People working the least amount of hours are unhappier than people working more and people working the most amount of hours are unhappier than people working less. Working generally makes people feel productive, autonomous, and valued. Working can also meet our social needs. Working the right amount may be the key to well-being because people can reap the benefits of working without sacrificing other aspects of their lives.
It may be helpful to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when deciding whether or not to quit your job. His hierarchy is composed on the lower level of physiological needs (food and clothing), rising to safety needs (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem needs (feelings of accomplishment), and self-actualization needs (reaching one’s full potential). Maslow’s theory explains what types of things motivate us. According to his hierarchy, our more basic needs must be met before we can pursue the higher order needs. Your job is one way that you can get your needs but it’s not the only way. If you are sacrificing your belonging needs or if you can’t get your esteem needs met through your job, it may be time for a change. Sometimes that change is a different job but it can also mean changing how much you work or how you work. Change can be scary but feeling scared to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it
I am passionate about making academic research in psychology accessible to everyone. This blog will include research based information to address common concerns people have about improving their psychological functioning and fulfilling their individual potential.