A massive new study says there's a single, highly surprising factor that predicts whether men will describe themselves as "happy" (and rank highly on a gauge called the Positive Mindset Index).

In fact, the results of this recent, survey-based analysis of 5,000 American men (it focused only on men, not women) seems to directly contradict the results of longer, much more famous studies, like the Harvard Grant Study.

The research was led by John Barry, a University College London psychologist who is co-founder of the male psychology section of the British Psychological Society. Here's the survey, the results, and what it tells us about American men today.

"Satisfaction at work"

Barry and his team presented 5,000 U.S. men from all walks of life with a "comprehensive, intimate survey," according to an official summary, asking them "about their happiness, confidence, sense of being in control, emotional stability, motivation, and optimism." 

They were also asked questions meant to gauge the health and positivity of various areas of their lives, including:

  • careers,
  • work-life balance,
  • relationships, 
  • money, 
  • physicality, and
  • mental health.

There were two really big takeaways from the whole survey, which was conducted in September. 

First, the good news: Overall, American men are pretty happy. And the characteristics they most respect and aspire to are quite positive: "honesty, reliability, dependability, being respectful of others, and loyalty."

Second, and this is the surprising one: The number-one thing that matters most in men's lives, far more than whether they're healthy, or have good relationships with family or friends, is whether they find satisfaction at work.

As the official summary put it:

Men at work are men at peace: Everything else flows down from satisfying employment. Men who have high job satisfaction are more likely to feel optimistic, happy, motivated, emotionally stable, in control, and confident.

Job satisfaction is by far the strongest predictor of positivity, being around three times higher than the next strongest predictor in every region and across the U.S. overall.

Having an impact

The study also worked backward, offering an insight into what factors actually predicted job satisfaction, and in turn what men were doing to make those factors more likely.

Specifically, it wasn't money; it was the sense that men had about whether they thought they made an impact on their employer's ultimate success. And that perception was largely influenced (as aptly summarized in a report about all of this in Quartz) by factors including:

  • whether men feel they are using their own unique talents at work,
  • whether they are surrounded by a diverse set of perspectives,
  • how easily and often they can chat with co-workers,
  • whether they feel their opinions are valued, and
  • whether they're inspired by the people they work with.

What I find most interesting is how these conclusions seem to contradict the much-touted results of the Harvard Grant Study, which is a 75-year study of the lives of 724 men who graduated together from Harvard in 1938.

Specifically, as the Harvard Grant Study's current curator summarizes: "The lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

It's not that this more recent and obviously smaller study completely discounts the impact of personal relationships in men's happiness--but it does downplay it significantly.

In fact, after job satisfaction, for the 5,000 men in this study, their physical and mental health, their incomes, and their ages were all more important than their relationship statuses and friendships. (Side note: The happiest men in America were largely men over 50, living in the American Midwest.)

The obvious question

The entire survey was sponsored by the men's grooming company, Harry's, which likely explains one glaring omission: It wasn't at all interested in what made women happy.

That's doubly glaring, given that Harry's also sponsored an additional study of 2,000 British men, asking them the same questions. For the most part, the results lined up with the Americans.

Besides simply forgetting about 51 percent of the population, it means that the study neglected a chance to examine whether there are any big differences in the things that drive predictability of happiness between men and women.

I guess for now we'll just have to chalk that up to "room for further study."

But, in the meantime, there's a useful takeaway. If you're in a rut, not as happy as you think you could be, and wondering what you might do to improve your life, ask yourself one important question: Do I feel like I'm contributing and valued in my work?

If not, that might be the first thing to think about changing.