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My Job Sucks and I Don't Know What Makes Me Happy

On job satisfaction and finding fulfillment.

Brad Waters
My chicks in their first week. Watching them grow to the point where they started laying eggs has felt fulfilling. Experiencing their youthful energy and affection also "fills my resilience cup" after a long day.
Source: Brad Waters

“[Fulfillment] can never be exchanged or redeemed, because everything has been exchanged or redeemed to make its purchase possible.” — Emily Fox Gordon

As I was preparing to write this essay yesterday morning, a client called me asking for help weighing a difficult career decision: To accept an offer to attend an MBA program at an Ivy League school or to remain at a highly regarded company in a well-paying position.

So I’ll pose the conundrum to my readers: You have a bachelor’s degree and a secure position in a good company. You’re generously compensated and will likely receive a promotion in the next two years. But in that same span of time, you could be finishing up your Masters from one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet, which costs a lot of money to attend and is far from your family. Because you’re paid well currently, there’s no guarantee you’ll make more money with your MBA. Yet you’re bound to have interesting and challenging experiences, meet influential people, and position yourself well for all kinds of career options. Which path would you choose and what factors motivate your decision?

How about the fulfillment of a dream or goal? Did that come to mind as a motivating factor? Fulfillment is a word that comes up a lot in my client work. I ask my clients, "What has felt fulfilling in the past, and what might feel fulfilling in the future?" If you know what fulfills you, it's easier to make decisions that lead to that outcome.

Fulfillment vs. Happiness

Fulfillment is different from happiness. There’s been so much chatter about happiness in recent years it could make your head spin. Personally, I’m not concerned with the happiness debate. I’m not interested in the squabble of happiness experts trying to pinpoint its definition or its existence. I'm interested in fulfillment. Fulfillment is the new happiness.

I know when I’ve felt fulfilled and I know that it feels different from happiness. Often I feel fulfilled after an intense day of helping clients with their career struggles. It feels good to help others by calling upon my skills and experience. But that’s so different from happiness. Happiness can cease at the flick of a switch—as soon as something unhappy happens. But fulfillment is robust. It's something I can hold on to. It can stand tall and strong like a marble statue resisting the daily weather of mood.

At the end of a workday, I'm probably exhausted and ready to zone out in the garden. Would I say I'm "happy" at that point? Maybe, maybe not. But regardless of other factors influencing my mood in that moment, I could still say that I feel fulfilled from a full day's work. It's that sense of contentedness that stems from achievement and contribution.

Honestly, I’ve been feeling unhappy of late, what with all that’s transpired with our politics, the news filled with human suffering, and the alarming state of our natural environment. These topics are pervasive and constant, and I experience them in a way that affects my happiness. Sometimes I wish I was hardened to it, but I'm a dyed-in-the-wool bleeding heart and I'm sensitive to my environment.

Yet I still find so much fulfillment in my days. After my client work when I’m out in the garden tending to my flock of hens. Or, when I find a great vintage bargain at an estate sale. These are fulfilling experiences. My attention is transfixed by their moments. Their results are tangible and savory. They require me to be fully present and they call upon something that I have to offer: my prowess, my compassion, or my wisdom gained from mistakes made.

So when we're facing a tough career decision and ask ourselves, “Will this decision make me happy?” or “Is this the right decision?” we are setting ourselves up for a brick wall of indecision. We are asking the wrong questions because happiness is fickle, elusive, and often times comes attached to pain.

In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, authors Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom wrote, “The pursuit of happiness may not be wholly effective, but it doesn’t really hurt, right? Wrong. Ever since the 18th century, people have been pointing out that the demand to be happy brings with it a heavy burden, a responsibility that can never be perfectly fulfilled. Focusing on happiness can actually make us feel less happy.”

So perhaps it's time to redefine what we're looking for in our human experience and make our decisions based on a new set of criteria. Will this decision bring me fulfillment? Will this be an experience I cherish? Will this help me fulfill my life's mission? Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we can look for evidence and information.

With that in mind, let me ask you: What career experiences have felt fulfilling in your past? Reflect upon your past week. What has felt fulfilling? What do you currently believe will bring you fulfillment in your future?

For most of us, "accumulating wealth" does not top our list of job satisfaction factors, personal achievements, or experiences that bring about a sense of fulfillment. Though we may aspire to make more money, it's because we want to afford stability, satisfying experiences, and the movement toward fulfilling life's goals. Some of those factors are attached to making money but seldom do they require wealth.

According to a 2016 Fidelity Investments survey, "the first wave of millennial workers (those born between 1981 and 1991) would be willing to take an average pay cut of $7,600 (U.S.) for a job that offers an improved quality of work life. That includes better career development opportunities, a corporate culture more aligned with their values, and greater work-life balance. In fact, when asked which they value more—money or quality of life—58 percent chose the latter."

In fact, in survey after survey, spanning the globe and spanning decades, the most common predictors of job satisfaction do not include wealth. Stability, yes. But not wealth. Instead, we see factors related to fulfilling experiences.

According to a meta-analysis conducted by the career site, there are five predictors of job satisfaction:

  1. Engaging work
  2. Work you’re good at
  3. Work with people you like
  4. Meets your basic needs, further broken down into 4 factors:
  • Reasonable hours
  • Job security
  • Short commute
  • Fair pay

On a fascinating webpage compiled by the University of Kent titled "What Makes Us Happy at Work?" users can explore the most significant influencers of workplace happiness backed by all kinds of facts, figures, charts, and graphs. We see factors associated with doing good work and doing it in an optimal environment bringing us the most satisfaction. Notice the bubble in the bottom left reads, "Money: but for security and freedom from worry this brings, not possessions."

Bruce Woodcock/University of Kent
Source: Bruce Woodcock/University of Kent

Needs Change As We Age

An interesting 2016 Indeed study states that, "although the work-life balance correlates closely with overall job satisfaction, some of the contributing factors are ranked differently across cultures—and as we progress through our careers, our needs and expectations adjust."

Indeed they do. Take a recent client of mine, for example. She’s in her early 60s and feeling a powerful motivation to take her career to the next level. Now that her children are adults she has the time, focus, and energy to take her mid-level management job to the Director level. She possesses high level expertise and enthusiasm that will undoubtedly be an asset to her next employer. She knows exactly what she needs from the next step in her career in order for it to be fulfilling: to have a voice, utilize her creativity, create change, provide mentorship, and see the results of her hard work. A different stage from earlier in her career when her job fulfilled the need to provide stability and time for her family.

I recently asked another client of mine the best part of her current job. In her late 30s with two children in elementary school, Katie responded that the best part of her job is the short commute and proximity to her children should something happen at school. What she likes least is the company management and corporate culture. Her children are her priority at this time in her life and she realizes that after her children are grown she may make a career shift. While she knows she could be climbing the career ladder right now, she feels that staying in her current position affords her the ultimate fulfillment: time and flexibility.

When asked what he likes and dislikes about his job, Raymond, a consultant, reports that he likes the dynamic and variable nature of the work. Always traveling to different places, working with different clients, and meeting new people. He also likes having an influence on the development of workplace culture—hiring young candidates who are enthusiastic and providing mentorship to them. On the other hand, the hours are long, the workload is intense and, just like Katie, he’s weary of management politics.

Like the rest of us, his job satisfaction comes with purchases and exchanges. He's compensated well and has exciting experiences, but he pays with his time and energy for the purchase of those aspects which are fulfilling. And he monitors the exchange rate closely. Someday the cost may seem too high, but with energy and ambition on his side, for now he’s willing to make the sacrifice.


Fulfillment is cumulative and it comes from many sources. We can't expect our job to be the sole source. We will experience ebbs and flows of job satisfaction, and that's when we need to be diligent about accessing other sources that fill our cup. Your hobbies, your self-care, your people. That's what it means to be resilient and taking responsibility for your happiness, if I dare use the word.

The bottom line is, you get to decide. You get to decide what choices you make based on what you know fulfills you now and will likely do so in the future. So it pays to take a deep dive into understanding what makes you tick. Listen to your instincts. Stay connected to gratitude. Examine what you know you need vs. what you think you want. Pay attention to what truly matters in your life vs. what’s merely an intoxicating illusion. These are at the same time complex questions and simple ones that bring us back to basics. Usually it’s the simple things that end up being the best.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like my articles:

10 Traits of Emotionally Resilient People

Will Moving Make Me Happier?


Brad Waters, MSW works nationwide with non-traditional career seekers, freelancers, creatives, introverts, Millennials, and corporate career changers. He helps people clarify their career direction and take action on career-life transitions. Request a free consultation call at

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