Why Happy People Have the Most Difficult Jobs

People who tend to have happy dispositions are usually those who have jobs that come with more difficult tasks. There is one very simple explanation for this — the happiest people are the ones who are being challenged and feel they are serving a purpose.

Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has observed this phenomenon within her own group of peers and friends. “The happiest people I know are dedicated to dealing with the most difficult problems,” she writes on the Harvard Business Review blog. “Turning around inner city schools. Finding solutions to homelessness or unsafe drinking water. Supporting children with terminal illness. They face the seemingly worst of the world with a conviction that they can do something about it and serve others.”

In her book titled “Evolve!,” Kanter outlines the three primary sources of motivation in companies that thrive on innovation: mastery, membership and meaning. The unofficial fourth motivation is money, but Kanter notes that a big salary doesn’t get people excited to go to work in the morning, nor does it give them a sense of fulfillment when they return home in the evening.

Kanter also notes that people will make sure to meet goals and are always up for seemingly impossible challenges if they care about the task at hand.

“Heart-wrenching emotion also helps cultivate a human connection,” she writes. “It is hard to feel alone, or to whine about small things, when faced with really big matters of deprivation, poverty, and life or death. Social bonds and a feeling of membership augment the meaning that comes from values-based work.”

While not every company is based on philanthropy, there are ways to incorporate Kanter’s 3 M’s into the workplace: a mastery of our skills, a sense of membership among employees and a way to find meaning in the work.

“I’d like to go a step further and urge that everyone regardless of their work situation, have a sense of responsibility for at least one aspect of changing the world,” Kanter advises. “It’s as though we all have two jobs: our immediate tasks and the chance to make a difference.”

Any company can tap into this need to make a difference. Host monthly volunteering days where employees can get together to lend a hand to a specific cause. Give employees the opportunity to work on philanthropic projects — perhaps every Friday afternoon can be allocated to working on a side project that promotes or helps boost social change.

Keeping this balance in the workplace can yield happier employees who will ultimately find deeper meaning in the work they produce.

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