How happy are you in your job? Very happy or very unhappy? New data suggests that the happiest workers in the UK occupy jobs in the clergy. The next happiest workers are CEOs, and “managers and proprietors in agriculture and horticulture”. The unhappiest workers are debt collectors, elementary construction workers and publicans.
It would seem that, from the perspective of raising average life
satisfaction, the UK would be better off if it had more vicars and fewer pub
landlords. Perhaps we should worry less about the decline in the number of pubs
and instead hope – or pray – for an increase in church congregations.
But there are some serious issues with life
satisfaction data. Without doubt these data can be useful. But they can also
be misleading and potentially dangerous if interpreted in the wrong way. The
point is that we need to ask deeper questions about the quality of our lives
that conventional survey questions cannot fully grasp. This point applies in
particular to the use of life satisfaction data as a putative measure of the
quality of jobs.
In some senses, the results are about what we would expect. Those in better
paid jobs generally tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction – while
money may have its limits in buying happiness, it is certainly better in welfare
terms to have a well paid job than one that still leaves you poor.
The results also suggest the importance of the intrinsic rewards of work.
CEOs, for example, benefit not just from high pay but also from being their own
bosses. By contrast, workers in jobs with a low degree of autonomy such as
telesales report low life satisfaction. There also seems to be a boost to
well-being from working outdoors – farmers rank as the eighth most satisfied
The result for members of the clergy – that vicars and priests tend to report
high life satisfaction – can be explained by the fact that they do work for
reasons other than money and in the act of working they gain high intrinsic
rewards that compensate them for lower wages. Work, in the case of the clergy,
is more a “calling” than a means to affluence.
But there are also some anomalies. Company secretaries are relatively lowly
paid but report high life satisfaction. Can we say that these workers gain high
non-monetary rewards in work that more than compensates them for their below
However, they are unlikely to report such satisfaction based solely on their
income and the nature of the job. One other important factor may be the lower
norms of the mostly female workers employed as company secretaries. They don’t
expect to be their own bosses, to work for a “higher calling” or to earn
millions, and their norms will be set accordingly. If we factor in their lower
norms, company secretaries need not be seen as so joyous.
The point to stress is that life satisfaction data is subject to bias. Two
workers doing the same job may rate their life satisfaction differently owing to
differences in the norms they hold.
The same argument applies for differences in expectations and aspirations
about life and work. The company secretary who does not expect to progress in
the organisation in which she works need not feel dissatisfied with her life if
she has few opportunities to climb the career ladder. Low aspirations can lead
to an acceptance of limited opportunities which in turn may inflate reported
Of course, this same argument works the other way round too. A high flying
CEO would be unlikely to maintain his or her life satisfaction if asked to trade
places with his or her secretary, even if the two occupations maintain a
similarly high level of life satisfaction.
Given how norms and expectations as well as aspirations impact on peoples’
perceptions of the quality of their lives, then data on life satisfaction
becomes a very noisy signal of well-being. The immediate danger is that we see
company secretaries and CEOs as leading similarly happy lives when in reality
the gulf in well-being between the two groups is huge.
Following the same argument, the low reported life satisfaction of those in
poorly paid jobs may actually underestimate the hardships they face in their
lives inside and outside work. For similar reasons, job satisfaction data is
likely to be just as unreliable
as an indicator of job quality.
Critics of subjective well-being data such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have long argued that
well-being should be understood in more objective terms. We should be assessing
the quality of occupations like company secretary and CEO based on what the jobs
themselves enable people to be and do in their lives, not on subjective
assessments of life satisfaction.
If, as reported,
the Cabinet Office is working on a web-based calculator that will allow people
to make better career choices, it would be better advised to devote resources to
compiling data on the different qualitative features of jobs. Certainly, this
would be better than relying on the blunt instrument of a one-shot question
about life satisfaction, which may hide more than it reveals about the quality
This article was originally published at the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/vicars-may-be-jumping-for-joy-but-satisfaction-surveys-require-more-searching-questions-24818