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by Derek Loosvelt | January 18, 2017


Today, 66 percent of employees are unsatisfied with their jobs. And as it turns out, the unsatisfied have no one but themselves to blame. At least, that's what Ayelet Fishbach, a behavioral science and marketing professor at Chicago's Booth School of Business, has come to conclude. In a recent study, Fishbach spoke with numerous unhappy employees and found that it was their own poor judgment that put them into unsatisfying work situations.

People send résumés and go to interviews thinking that they care only about salaries and promotions. These are important, yes, but they are not enough. To identify a satisfying job, people should be thinking about office morale and doing work that is interesting and fun.
To demonstrate this point, my colleague Kaitlin Woolley and I asked a large group of employees what made them like their present jobs, along with what factors would cause them to like future jobs.
Unsurprisingly, we found that promotions and raises were important for people both in their current job and in applying for future jobs. What was interesting, though, was that the majority cared a lot about present benefits (such as doing something interesting with people they like) in their current job, but they expected not to care very much about those things in their future jobs. When envisioning themselves in the future, they predicted that they would almost solely be driven by delayed benefits like salaries.

So why are we so bad at predicting what will satisfy us in the future? Why can't we understand what's satisfying us now will also probably satisfy us in the future, and what's making us miserable now will also likely make us miserable in the future?

It appears that the answer has something to do with the fact that we think that in the future we'll somehow magically morph into someone else, someone with different likes and dislikes. And/or we believe that, in the future, more money and a nicer sounder title will alone satisfy all of our basic and not-so-basic human needs. In any case, we're very wrong about who we think we'll be and what we think we'll like at any moment other than the here and now.

A basic insight from behavioral science is that people care about the present mainly in the present. They do not really care about it in advance. For example, we care about staying warm when we are in Aspen, Colo., and it is cold. But while we are packing our clothes in balmy Southern California, we are less likely to consider just how cold we will be in Aspen.
In the workplace, we are similarly well aware that it is much easier to get out of bed in the morning if our job is interesting and our colleagues are fun to be around. But we care much less about such benefits when we apply for a future job. We fail to realize that the person we are in the present—the one who values intrinsic benefits—is awfully similar to the person we will be in the future.

Now that you realize you and you alone created your own living hellish job, what can you do? According to Fishbach, you can do three things: 1) Pick a career "you enjoy"; "unless you find small pleasures in your daily routine, you will not stick to it." 2) Do things that make you happy at work: "listen to music, make friends and break the routine with social activities." You'll "stick to your career goals longer if your work is enjoyable in the moment." 3) "Bring to mind those present benefits that do exist at your work. Maybe you just have not been paying attention to them."

To Fishbach's third recommendation, I would add this: Pay EXTREMELY close attention to your emotional state throughout your workday at your present job. Take stock of how you're feeling as often as you can. Even during mundane tasks. But especially during larger, more significant tasks that make up most of your day and job. Ask yourself: Do I like doing this right now? Is this intellectually or creatively or physically challenging? Do I want to do more of this? Less? Would I rather not do this? Am I in a positive mindset while doing this? Negative? Positive or negative, is it the work itself that's making me feel this way? My colleagues? The lack of light in my office? The fact that I'm sitting and not standing? Etc, etc.

The point is the more you can understand what your present job is or isn't doing to you, the faster you can begin to do those things, or do those things more often, that you truly enjoy and that do bring you satisfaction.

And if you determine, after you take stock of your present job, that you need to look for a new one, you'll have all you need to know to begin your search. As an added bonus, you'll know exactly what to talk about if you're asked in interviews, "Why are you looking for a new position?"

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