Some people are extroverts who loving meetings and events. Others wilt if they don't get hours of alone time a day. Some folks thrive on order, others on chaos. Some heads are full of orderly numbers, others of crazy ideas.

My point is this: our capacities, preferences, and personalities are incredibly various. Does that mean that what constitutes a dream job is unique to everyone?

Nope, according to a huge review of the research on the subject by non-profit 80,000 Hours, which aims to help people find work that is both rewarding and helps make the world a better place.

Many "think that the key elements of their dream job are that it be easy and highly paid," writes the organization in a long post on the subject. "We've reviewed two decades of research into the causes of a satisfying life and career, drawing on over 60 studies, and we didn't find much evidence for these views." 

What does matter? Your dream job must match your particular gifts and lifestyle preferences. No one can figure that our for you but you (though there are plenty of tips on how to go about exploring). But aside from these personal particulars, a mountain of research shows every dream job share the same five characteristics.

1. It's engaging.

The biggest happiness killer at work, according to the research, isn't low pay or high stress. It's boredom. "Job satisfaction is largely determined by how engaging the job itself is," notes 80,000 Hours.

What does that mean? Scientists have found four essential characteristics makes a job engaging: a variety of tasks, clearly defined goals, some freedom in how you perform those tasks, and feedback to let you know how you're doing.

Sound familiar? If so, that's because these are exactly the same principles video game designers use to build games that suck you in for hours on end. Engagement is "the reason an hour spent editing a spreadsheet can feel like pure drudgery, while an hour playing a computer game can feel like no time at all: computer games are designed to be as engaging as possible," explains 80,000 Hours. So are dream jobs.

2. It helps others.

When most of us set out to identify our dream job, we focus on what the work will offer us. Will we make a good living? Will our friends be impressed? But what actually seems to transform an average gig into a dream job isn't what it offers us, but what it offers others.

"There's a growing body of evidence that helping others is a key ingredient for life satisfaction. People who volunteer are less depressed and healthier. A randomized study showed that performing a random act of kindness makes the giver happier. And a global survey found that people who donate to charity are as satisfied with their lives as those who earn twice as much," says the post.

It should also be noted that while helping others is about the nature of the work, it's also about how you approach that work. Putting out fires is helping people, but so is opening a salon that brings a smile to every person who walks through the door. Even scrubbing hospital floors can be seen as a helping profession if you have the right mindset.

3. You're good at it.

It's obvious that being bad at your work feels lousy and limits your options. Yet people often focus more on their so-called "passions" and less on what they're actually good at when searching for a dream job. That's a big mistake, according to 80,000 Hours.

"Skill ultimately trumps interest," they insist. "Even if you love art, if you pursue it as a career but aren't good at it, you'll end up doing boring graphic design for companies you don't care about. That's not to say you should only do work you're already good at. However, you want the potential to get good at it."

4. You work with helpful people.

We all know working with jerks is not a recipe for happiness, but the research on job satisfaction actually paints a slightly more complicated picture of the relationship between your colleagues' personalities and happiness at work.

"You don't need to become friends with everyone, or even like all of your colleagues. Research shows that perhaps the most important factor is whether you can get help from your colleagues when you run into problems," 80,000 Hours explains. "People who are disagreeable and different from yourself can be the people who'll give you the most useful feedback, provided they care about your interests."

5. There are no horrible downsides.

People often think of dream jobs as those with high pay and low stress, but decades of studies show this simply isn't the case. Above the point of basic security and comfort, more money adds close to zero additional happiness (the post offers a detailed calculator to figure out the exact point money will stop making a difference for you). And the research-validated truth is super low stress just equals super boring.

But while most people overvalue money and lifestyle considerations, you can't ignore them entirely either. For a job to truly earn the "dream job" title it has to meet a few basic criteria:

  • The hours aren't punishing.

  • The commute isn't terrible (say, an hour or more).

  • The pay feels fair.

  • You feel relatively secure and not like you could lose your livelihood at a moment's notice.

Once you have these basic boxes checked, traditional markers of a dream job like salary and status aren't all that important. As 80,000 Hours exhaustive review of the science on the subject shows (here's their real deep dive into the evidence for the wonky), what really matters is doing engaging work you're good at which helps others.