Pandemic-related reflection and the "Great Resignation" have both employees and employers asking themselves what makes for a happy job right now. Lists ranking jobs by how happy or unhappy they make those who hold them promise to offer clarity on the question. 

Plus, they're fun to read. I confess to both writing them up and nodding along in interest while reading them in the past. But, unfortunately, according to Harvard professor and regular Atlantic contributor Arthur C. Brooks, these lists are also pretty meaningless. 

One person's dream job is another's nightmare 

You may have intuited as much if you've read a couple of them. Professions that top one list often end up at the bottom of other rankings. Clearly, there's disagreement in methodology among list makers. But Brooks insists that the problem isn't really survey design. It's the fundamental nature of what makes for a happy job.

"Researchers who have looked for clear relationships between job satisfaction and the actual type of job one holds have overwhelmingly struck out," he reports. That's because some people see park ranger as a dream job, while others focus on angry bears and stinging insects. Our professional preferences vary wildly, and what makes one person jubilant strikes another as borderline torture. 

But that doesn't mean science has nothing to tell us about what makes for a happy job in general. Particular roles and industries might not be reliably correlated with increased happiness at work, but particular qualities of a job are. 

Predictably, a pay rise increases happiness at work, but that bump in satisfaction is brief, research has shown. Studies also reveal more durable links between happiness at work and jobs where employees' values line up with the values of their company and colleagues. Recognition, work-life balance, and less egotistical leadership all make it more likely a given job will be a happy one. 

It's not terribly shocking that respect and decent wages make people happier at work, but what if you want to find a job that not only clears the "not miserable" bar but actually makes you happy? Brooks says he tells young people who come to him for career advice to think less about title, prestige, and sector, and instead look for these two qualities in a job: 

  • Earned success. Few things make people happier than a sense that their hard work has paid off in recognition and rewards, so look for a job where your effort will bear tangible fruit. "Employers who give clear guidance and feedback, reward merit, and encourage their employees to develop new skills" are your best bet, writes Brooks, so "look for a boss who acts that way--and if you have the opportunity, be that kind of boss."

  • Service to others. What's the only thing that humans generally like more than being able to help themselves? Helping others. Which doesn't mean you need to find a do-gooder career at a charity, Brooks insists. "My own research has shown that nonprofit work is not more inherently satisfying than working for a for-profit or for the government," he points out. "On the contrary, you can find service in almost any job." Whether you're a janitor or a CEO, if you can see how what you do every day makes the world a better place, you're far more likely to be happy with your job. 

Not just for job seekers 

As Brooks himself points out, his roundup of the science of happiness at work isn't just of interest to college grads and burned-out professionals pondering a career change. The two factors above can guide you to finding a better job, but they can also guide you to designing a better job. 

If you're looking to retain staff or attract talent, salary and seniority are certainly nice carrots. But to keep talent around and truly engaged, make sure you offer a sense of accomplishment and service, too.