Happiness = Perceived Progress and Control

Many people falsely assume that they would be happiest with a job that pays the most money. This almost makes sense, because it is with money that we can go on vacations and buy fun toys. However, money is far from the only part of the happiness at work equation. In fact, it’s actually a pretty small factor.

Realistically, when it comes to vocational endeavors, there are two other factors that weigh much more heavily: perceived progress and perceived control.

“Perceived” Is Key

You’ll notice that I said perceived progress and perceived control. That’s because perception really has a lot more to do with your happiness than the hard facts of the matter. Let’s illustrate with an example.

Shown above is a depiction of the Penrose Stairs, also known as the endless staircase or the impossible staircase. We can see from this vantage point that the stairs really lead to nowhere. However, for the man on the stairs, he may feel like he is getting somewhere. After all, the personal experience would be that of moving forward and upward — the very definition of progress.

In the context of the work environment, you are happier when you feel like you are moving forward and upward. Promotions, salary increases, and greater responsibility give that sense of progress. You may remember an episode of The Office where Dwight Schrute was “promoted” from “Assistant to the Regional Manager” to “Assistant Regional Manager.” He felt like he was getting a promotion, even though his job description and pay rate remained unchanged. Even so, he was happy with the “change.”

Taking the Reins

This may apply in a varying degree, depending on your personality, but it is also rewarding to feel like you are in control. If you are always told exactly what to do and how to do it, with no flexibility to deviate from these instructions, the job is likely not very satisfying.

However, if you can take greater ownership of your work and feel like you are the one holding the reins, you’re likely happier when the project is successful. This gives your job meaning. The sense of control and the sense of ownership go hand-in-hand.

Plateaus Outside Your Control

It’s likely because of these two factors that I chose a career in freelance writing. I have a great deal of control, since I am effectively my own boss, and I get a better sense of progress when I see my name more widely recognized or I earn more money. It helps that I think this progress and control is real, but who knows? It could be all in my head.

For my part, perceived progress and perceived control are greatly valuable, but they are lacking one other important element: novelty. Routine has its place, but not at the price of stagnation. Novelty lends itself to progress, especially when you can control the direction of that novelty.