A pay bump is often a strong motivator to take a new job. However money doesn't always buy happiness. (Exception: Sometimes it literally does, if you use it to buy time.)

Besides financial gain, there are plenty of other reasons to seek out new employment, too. It might be that your toxic workplace is making you sick. Or that the new gig offers a shorter commute or more flexibility.

And now, researchers have dug into another reason why people might be compelled to seek out new employment -- even if it means taking a massive pay cut.

Researchers found that people would be willing to accept a 32 percent pay cut if it meant their work was more meaningful. They published their results in the personality and social psychology journal Frontiers in Psychology.

To compare financial compensation versus meaningful work, researchers conducted four separate studies.

"On average, participants reported minimum acceptable salaries that were 32% lower for personally meaningful jobs compared to jobs that were perceived as personally meaningless," they wrote in their findings. "The willingness to accept lower salaries in exchange for meaningful work also emerged across a broad variety of job categories and income levels."

What's considered meaningful work?

Factors such as salary or commute length are easy to quantify. Meaningful work is a little more mushy. The authors defined meaningful work as the "degree to which an employee experiences the job as one which is generally meaningful, valuable, and worthwhile."

In one study, the researchers surveyed 245 participants based in the United States. Their median yearly household income was between $50,000 to $59,999.

Participants had to answer two questions:

  • What is a job or career that you are capable of doing that you think would provide you with a sense of personal meaning?

  • What is a job or career that you are capable of doing that you think would fail to provide you with a sense of personal meaning?

These were the most common responses for meaningful jobs:

  • Teacher

  • Writer

  • Artist

  • Nurse

  • Working for a non-profit

On the other end of the spectrum, these were the most common responses for least meaningful jobs:

  • Accountant

  • Food Service Worker

  • Banker

  • Salesperson

  • Office Worker

The individual responses varied greatly. In fact, many of the participants listed the exact same job -- but on opposite ends of the meaningful scale. What one person considered to be meaningful work another considered to be meaningless work. This shows the subjectivity in the idea of meaningful work.

Then participants were asked to name the lowest yearly salary they'd accept if they had to take for both of the jobs they named. For those jobs participants deemed meaningful, people were willing to accept an average minimum salary of $32,666. For ones they found meaningless, their minimum acceptable salary averaged at $52,498. In other words, people on average would accept 32 percent less for meaningful work.

Less dramatic results for this demographic

The results did identify a clear demographic of people who would be less likely to accept such a drastic pay cut: Participants with at least one child.

The researchers hypothesized this could be because higher salaries give parents more resources to provide for their kids, which is a source of meaning in itself. Another obvious reason may be that families have more expenses, so don't have the luxury of accepting less.

Still, parents reported that they'd accept less for meaningful jobs. But instead of a 32 percent pay cut, their level of comfort was closer to 28 percent.

Ultimately we must remember this was just a study. Though the results are compelling, we cannot accept them as fact. The participants weren't actually forced to take these jobs; They were simply asked to envision the salary they might accept if offered the position. Meaningful or not, there are many other factors that influence the decision to take a new job.

Still, the results of this research make clear that money isn't everything. You might be willing to sell your soul to earn more -- but you might be willing earn less to take some of it back.

Published on: Oct 3, 2017