It is too easy for us to check out at our jobs and dread waking up to go to work in the mornings. In a 2022 Gallup survey of 1,000 U.S. workers, the majority —65% — said they feel indifferent and disengaged about the work they are doing.
So when people are actually engaged and satisfied by the careers they are in, it can feel like a pleasant surprise. Toxic work environments can definitely make it hard to build a fulfilling, meaningful career — but it is still possible.
Career experts and researchers share the traits and experiences that actually keep us satisfied with our jobs. Spoiler: It’s not usually prestige or other traditional markers of success.
1. You have more control over how you get your work done.
What most of us really want from work is just autonomy. In a 2016 study of more than 2,000 people published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that the kind of power people most desired was not the power to be a boss telling others what to do, but simply the ability to have more autonomy over how their workdays went.
In one of the thought experiments in the study, the majority of participants were much more likely to reject a management promotion that would give them more influence within their company if it meant giving up more autonomy to do what they wanted when they wanted ― even when both options had the same pay.
“The desire for power is born not of a desire to be the master of others, but to be master of one’s own fate and domain,” the study concluded.
Of course, sometimes autonomy at work can be harder to get, depending on where you work and who you work for. Kevin Hoff, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University who researches job satisfaction, said professionals can negotiate for more autonomy, but it can be dependent on the trust you have with a boss.
“A lot of it also depends on your supervisor,” he said. “And if you have a good supervisor, then a lot more becomes possible.”
2. You value work/life boundaries and you stick to them.
Similar to prioritizing autonomy, flexibility is not just a nice-to-have — it can be critical for feeling satisfied and in control of one’s career. Part of having this control means setting and enforcing work/life boundaries.
Career coach Jasmine Escalera shared that when thinking about needing more flexibility, it’s important to connect that to what you actually want to do with that extra time. “Sometimes we’ll kind of say, ‘I want more flexibility,’ but we don’t have the purpose behind it,” she said. The people who are most successful with achieving flexibility are also able to let their teams know that it’s a priority.
Escalera shared the example of a client who has a wrap-up alarm go off every day at 4:30 p.m. because she wants to spend more time with her family. “The alarm is her reminder that for the next 30 minutes she’s going to wrap everything up, she’s going to write out her task lists for the next day and she’s going to start making her rounds with her staff members ... so that by 4:59 she’s out the door.”
“What was really smart about the process was that she communicated it to other people,” Escalera continued. Enforcing boundaries can be hard, but it’s necessary for building a life that is true to what you want inside and outside of work.
3. You have the freedom to experiment and make mistakes.
You cannot find satisfaction in your work if you’re always worriedly looking over your shoulder.
“In my experience coaching hundreds of [Black, Indigenous and people of color] leaders, training thousands more, and being a people manager myself, I believe that having a work environment that nurtures the psychological safety for professionals to be their authentic selves at work, and to be creative, to experiment, to make mistakes and to have the ability to learn from those mistakes without shame, embarrassment or punishment, is critical for having fulfillment in the work we dedicate ourselves to,” said Nadia De Ala, founder of Real You Leadership, a group coaching program for women of color.
Psychological safety means that you are comfortable talking about difficult topics, like calling out mistakes or failing, without fear of being punished.
“Psychological safety is the belief that I’m free to speak up. I’m free to share bad news. I’m free to ask for help when I’m in over my head,” management researcher Amy Edmondson, who studies the topic, previously told HuffPost. “If you’re trying to get challenging, ambitious work done, you want high standards and psychological safety.”
4. You have work friends or people you can lean on.
Having someone you can confide in and roll your eyes with across a meeting can make all the difference with how you feel about your workday.
“If you have one person that you know is really clearly on your team and you can understand each other,” then that can change the satisfaction you hold toward your job, Hoff said.
Research backs this up. In a Gallup survey of more than 195,600 employees in the U.S., the professionals who said they had a best friend at work also reported being the most committed to and engaged with their jobs.
But you do not need a work BFF to make that helpful positive connection. Simply being friendly and open to others makes them feel comfortable working with you, and that can help your workday go a little easier, career experts say. In fact, just having a support network apart from the people you work with can be helpful for understanding what satisfaction means for you.
“Your professional community is also there to help you do these reflections and to contemplate what career satisfaction means to you and to help you identify the steps to obtain it,” Escalera said.
5. You get good feedback on how you are doing.
Hoff said one of the strong predictors of job satisfaction is whether you get job feedback, citing a job characteristics theory developed by organizational psychologists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham.
In it, the researchers found that employee satisfaction depended on five factors: varying tasks, defined tasks with a clear beginning and end, employees feeling like their role has meaning, employees having autonomy, and job feedback.
In some ways, getting job feedback can influence the other satisfaction factors, such as feeling your duties have meaning. “Knowing from your supervisor that you are doing a good job — it removes some of the uncertainty in terms of why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you can do it better,” Hoff said.
Although some bosses are better at proactively giving feedback, you can also be the one to seek it out if you are not getting what you are looking for. Asking for actionable advice is one way to help build better feedback loops with your bosses or other stakeholders, De Ala said.
“Be more specific about the growth you seek and how your peers and stakeholders can help you make a bigger impact in your role,” she said.
“Don’t ask, ‘How else can I grow as a product manager?’” De Ala advised. “Instead ask questions that move you forward and show the importance of investing in your potential: ‘I want to keep growing in my technical skills, because I know that’s my growth edge and I want to make a bigger impact in my role. So far, I’ve tried X, Y and Z. What project do you think I should take on to reach my next level in the next six months?’”
6. You are able to seek out new opportunities that keep work fresh and interesting.
When tasks are varying and not monotonous, employees are more likely to be satisfied, Hackman and Oldham’s theory found.
“There’s a beauty in a consistent and constant rhythm, too, but I think most people want to learn new things, grow their skillsets, and expand in their roles to evolve as a professional and as a human,” De Ala said. “There’s less opportunities for growth and career advancement if the status quo stays the same and your role lacks any variability.“
Asking for more variability could mean asking to be the front-of-room leader in more team meetings, taking on stretch projects, or getting a mentee or mentor, De Ala offered as examples. “The first step is to name what you want and ask what’s possible, then take it from there,” she said.
7. But you also understand that interesting work is not the only factor to consider when taking a job.
Career satisfaction is not wholly dependent on actually being passionate about the work you do, research published in 2020 found.
In the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Hoff and his fellow researchers systematically reviewed data conducted between 1949 and 2016 on the link between interest fit and job satisfaction, and they found that people who are more interested in their jobs tend to be slightly more satisfied in them, but other factors like pay, your employer and colleagues mattered too for job satisfaction.
“The takeaway is not to ignore your interests, but I think it’s maybe just to consider it as one factor among many,” Hoff said, giving the example of how a daily, hourlong commute to work versus a 15-minute one can make a big difference in one’s job satisfaction.
Managers can make or break your experiences, too. For example, if you have had a terrible boss, you know all too well why a supervisor can matter so much. “You could be doing work you love and have a shitty boss and be completely not happy,” Escalera said. In this way, sometimes maintaining satisfaction with your job can mean knowing when it’s time to quit it, even when it’s work you love doing.
8. You do regular check-ins with yourself.
Ultimately, one of the pillars for career satisfaction is simply being open to regularly reflecting on what you really want out of it.
“When we think about finding that fulfillment or finding what satisfaction means to you in your career, it’s important to first tap into, ‘Well, what does that mean for me today based off of the life that I have?’ And allowing for ourselves to revisit that as we grow in our careers and as our life just naturally progresses,” Escalera said.
In other words, being satisfied with your job means being curious about what you value, and being open to your answers changing over time. “I have so many people who say, ‘I don’t feel valued.’ And when I ask them, ‘Well what does value mean to you?’ they have no definition of it,” Escalera said.
Being in the driver’s seat of your career means listening to what you want instead of what others think would be best for you. Once you are confident about what you most prioritize in your next job, you are one mile closer to building a career that satisfies you.