A Career Seeker’s Guide to Money and Meaning
You, my readers, have been flooding my inbox with questions about money, happiness, and career satisfaction. Here’s a small sample of the questions you’ve sent me within the last 4 days:
–How much money does a person need to be happy?
–Should I concentrate on following my dreams or getting rich?
–Will I enjoy a job even if it doesn’t pay me well?
–How do I choose between my dreams and my need to pay bills?
By the time you’re done reading this article, you should have a clearer picture of the complicated relationship between money, career satisfaction, and happiness so you can make better decisions in your own life.
How much money do you need to be happy?
If you’re a young person choosing a field of study (or a mid-life professional seeking change) who wants to know how much money to seek in a prospective career, my default answer is: at least a middle-class wage.
Earn enough to live independently and afford necessities, with enough left over for retirement and recreation. For a single person with no lofty standard of living to maintain, forty large is a decent target. Adjust as necessary for life circumstances and geographic area.
It’s possible to be happy with less (especially in a modern country), but earning at least a middle-class wage has several benefits:
Although middle-class is an important happiness benchmark, research by Richard Easterlin suggests that your income has no bearing on your actual job satisfaction, which brings to mind an important question:
Should you follow your dreams or follow the cash?
And the short answer is both.
Some people choose a career based on earning potential with little regard for the work’s purpose, meaning or enjoyment — this is a huge mistake, since it leaves career satisfaction to blind luck.
Other people pursue meaning and purpose with no regard for income; this is also a mistake, since most people living in poverty end up obsessing about wealth. In other words, research has shown that people who don’t have enough money to satisfy basic needs tend to over-estimate the importance of wealth and to report lower levels of happiness.
Put more simply, long-term career satisfaction generally requires a livable wage, enjoyable tasks, and meaningful goals. Finding all these attributes in a single career is hard work, but the effort is worth it due to the sheer amount of time we spend at work and the fact that work is usually our primary means of contribution, both to ourselves and to the world at large.
Should you go out of your way to make more than a middle-class wage?
The short answer: probably not.
Judging from previous articles, some people probably think I’ve got some secret agenda against rich people. So please allow me to clarify: being rich is fantastic. If someone offered to drop 5 million dollars into my lap right now, no strings attached, I’d accept in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t you? After all, being rich has many advantages.
And yet, despite the many inarguable benefits of wealth, research has proven what your grandma already knew: money alone can’t buy happiness.
- A person’s expectations adjust to his income so that at any given income bracket, he will wish he had 20% more. In other words, people who have more tend to want more.
- Even lottery winners return to base happiness levels a few months after collecting their jackpot.
- Once a person reaches middle class, career satisfaction and relationships supersede money as more reliable happiness benchmarks.
This doesn’t mean that money is bad; it’s not. It also doesn’t undermine the many benefits of wealth, which are real. It merely suggests that money has a diminishing margin of utility, and that other things (relationships, job satisfaction, time affluence) become more important than money once you’ve satisfied your basic needs.
If you have a plan to make a billion dollars while satisfying all these other important needs too, go for it! Otherwise, note what matters; prioritize accordingly.
Feel Free to Break the Rules
Everything I’ve said in this article is supported by research. But all the positive psychology research in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you’re highly motivated and know precisely what you want and why you want it. In other words, feel free to break the rules; just know why you’re doing it, and be aware of the risks.
The conflict between dreams and bills is one that confronts many of you. I know because you tell me in the emails that you send me every week. And as you certainly know from my recent decision to re-enter the rat-race (described here, and here) while I pursue my dreams on the side, it’s a conflict that confronts me too.
Life happens. Obstacles abound. Life is full of hardship. But if I’ve learned one thing over the course of this summer, it’s that life is also full of hope. At the end of the day, all we can do is try our best to chase our dreams while balancing our economic realities. And if we keep trying, there’s no telling where our dreams might take us.
September 26, 2007 Wednesday at 1:57 am
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