Can Money Buy Happiness? Careers with the Most and Least Job Satisfaction

Financial Planning

Van Halen front man David Lee Roth once quipped that while money can’t buy happiness; it can buy a boat big enough to cruise right along side it. Choosing a career solely based on the high salary is often a recipe for unhappiness. Still, you’ve got to pay the bills and barely scraping by isn’t known to make things any sunnier, either.

A recent study from the National Opinion Research Center allows you to see where Americans are getting the greatest levels of job satisfaction — and the least.

Ten Most Satisfying Professions

According to the study, the ten professions with the highest levels of satisfaction are, in order from most satisfying to least:

  • Clergy
  • Physical Therapists
  • Firefighters
  • Education Administrators
  • Painters and Other Visual Artists
  • Teachers
  • Authors
  • Psychologists
  • Special Ed Teachers
  • Operating Engineers

Note that this is a diverse group of professions. Some professions, such as clergyman and special ed teachers, are what can be considered “mental labor.” Others, like firefighter and operating engineer, are highly skilled physical trades, while author and artist offer the possibility of artistic fulfillment.

Most of the jobs above offer respectable wages, at the least. None offers a median annual pay of less than $45,000, no fewer than seven have median annual wages over $50,000, with four paying over $60,000. Only two on the list (psychologist and education administrator) pull in more than $80,000 a year.

With the exception of firefighter, all are relatively safe jobs, taking place in controlled conditions that require a minimum of physical labor. Also note that these figures are averages, meaning if you have more experience or greater skill, it’s possible to earn more.

Ten Least Satisfying Professions

Now, let’s take a look at the ten least satisfying professions in terms of job happiness. They are, in order from least satisfying to most:

  • Roofers
  • Waiters
  • Laborers
  • Bartenders
  • Pickers and Packagers
  • Freight Material Handlers
  • Retail Apparel Salespeople
  • Cashiers
  • Food Preparers
  • Expediters

In general, these tend to be low-paying professions. Food preparers are at the bottom of the list, with an average annual wage of just $18,130 (as of 2010). The highest paying job isn’t what you might expect: at $44,900 per annum, expediters are the aristocrats of this list.

Further, jobs such as roofer, picker, freight material handler and laborer all come with increased risk of job-related injury and illness. Nearly all of the jobs are hard on the body in one way or another, although none quite compare to the danger of fighting fires.

The Price of Happiness

It seems that there is no juxtaposition between finding a job you love and a job that pays the bills. Many of the jobs on the low end of job happiness are stopgap-type jobs commonly held by teenagers, recent college grads, or people in transition.

Further, the highest-paying job on the list of unsatisfying jobs earns less on average than the lowest-paying job on the list of satisfying jobs.

Thus, there’s some truth to the advice you’ve rolled your eyes at countless times throughout your life: if you do what you love and stick with it the money will follow. It’s doubtful that anyone enters the clergy because they think they’re going to get rich, quickly or otherwise.

However, this profession is the current gold standard in professional satisfaction. Particularly for recent or soon-to-be college grads, making a list of the five or 10 professions you believe you’d enjoy the most, then conducting research into both what those vocations earn and how one enters them, is time well spent.

Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, CA. He finds freelance writing to be pretty fulfilling.


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