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If Happiness Does Not Lead to Life Satisfaction, What Does?

Updated: Mar 3

Many of my students secure full time employment at highly respected companies when they graduate. Stable jobs with generous employee benefits and opportunities for career advancement are often natural next steps for students who graduate from competitive universities. However, after a year or two on the job, I sometimes hear from former students who are not finding satisfaction in their work. They appreciate the lifestyle their work affords and often express satisfaction with some areas of their work but have a feeling that something is missing.

These individuals are not alone. A 2019 Gallup study found almost a third of workers in good jobs that pay well feel like they have room for improvement when it comes to using their strengths. And 33 percent of workers in good jobs were looking for new work. A “good job” was measured across ten job characteristics including pay, stability, control, security, benefits, enjoyment, and purpose.

Martin Seligman's work in positive psychology can help inform our thinking about the relationship between job and life satisfaction. In the book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman explains how our understanding of what it means to be happy has evolved from a focus on authentic happiness to well-being. In short, rather than chasing the fleeting feeling of happiness, Seligman’s research suggests well-being is the key to life satisfaction.

His research has found that you can increase flourishing by increasing the following elements of well-being in your life:

  • Positive emotion: Feeling good (i.e., pleasure, enjoyment). This element is most closely related to happiness.

  • Engagement: Experiencing flow (e.g., loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity). These are experiences where you don’t even notice time passing.

  • Meaning: Having purpose or belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self (e.g., family, religion, political party, being green).

  • Relationships: Positive relationships - social connection, love, intimacy - are the best antidotes to the downs of life.

  • Accomplishment: Achievement pursued for its own sake, even when it doesn’t bring positive emotion, engagement, or meaning.

In Seligman’s 2004 TED Talk, he says contrary to what he initially thought, “pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. [It’s] the whip cream and the cherry.” Wealth, attractiveness, and health also aren’t predictors of life satisfaction. Seligman’s research suggests the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of engagement contribute most to life satisfaction.

The takeaway: Consider what you can do to create more opportunities for engagement and meaning in your life. In part, you can begin by identifying your signatures strengths. Then use those strengths to create states of flow and to serve something greater than you.


My readers with a Cornell University connection may appreciate knowing that the field of Positive Psychology began with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, an organization founded by Chuck Feeney, Cornell University, School of Hotel Administration class of 1956.

Erdogan, B., Bauer, T. N., Truxillo, D. M., & Mansfield, L. R. (2012). Whistle while you work: A review of the life satisfaction literature. Journal of management, 38(4), 1038-1083.

Rothwell, J., & Crabtree, S. (2019). Not Just a Job: New Evidence on the Quality of Work in the United States. Lumina Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network and Gallup.

Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

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