Just what exactly is a ‘dream’ job?

  • Emma Finamore
  • 01 Oct 2018

What factors make a dream job, and how can you find yours.

Being good at your work gives you a sense of achievement; it’s a key ingredient of life satisfaction.

This month saw research released that shows careers confidence is worryingly low among young people aged 13-15. Despite over two thirds (68%) of the UK’s young people thinking a great or fair amount about their future careers, only 15% feel confident in their ability to secure their dream job.

But what makes a ‘dream’ job?

Last year, careers website 8,000 Hours reviewed two decades of research into the causes of a satisfying life and career, drawing on over 60 studies. Despite what you might think, they concluded that the six key ingredients of a dream job don’t include income, and they aren’t as simple as “following your passion”.

The bottom line – at least as they concluded – when it comes to finding a dream job, is identifying:

  1. Work you’re good at
  2. Work that helps others
  3. Supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life

The dream job: what people get wrong

There are a few commonly overrated goals for a fulfilling career; people often imagine that a dream job is both well paid and easy. One of the leading job rankings in the US analysed by 8,000 Hours rated jobs on the following criteria:

  1. Is it highly paid?
  2. Is it going to be highly paid in the future?
  3. Is it stressful?
  4. Is the working environment unpleasant?

Based on this, the best job in 2015 was…actuary. That is, someone who uses statistics to measure and manage risks, often in the insurance industry.

It’s true that actuaries are more satisfied with their jobs than average, but they’re not among the most satisfied. Only 36% of them say their work is meaningful, for example, so being an actuary isn’t a particularly fulfilling career.

Money helps, but only a little

It’s a bit of a cliche that you can’t “buy happiness”, but at the same time, financial security is among most people’s top career priorities6. And when people are asked what would most improve the quality of their lives, the most common answer is more money. So, what’s right?

Several recent major studies in economics offer clarity on this, and 8,000 Hours reviewed the best ones available, to discover the truth turns out to lie somewhere in the middle: money does make you happy, but only a little.

Here are the findings from a huge survey in the US in 2010:

People were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale from one to 10. Going from a (pre-tax) income of $40,000 to $80,000 is only associated with an increase in life satisfaction from about 6.5 / 7 out of 10. That’s a lot of extra income for just a small increase in happiness.

But looking at day-to-day happiness, income is even less important. “Positive affect” is whether people reported feeling happy yesterday. The number of people who said “yes” plateaus at an income of around $50,000, showing that beyond this point income bears no relationship to day-to-day happiness.

Many people say they want to find a job that’s not too stressful, and health-wise stress is considered to be a negative factor in our lives. But when 8,000 Hours did a survey of the modern literature on stress they found that the picture is a bit more complicated.

Studies of high ranking government and military leaders found they had lower levels of stress hormones and less anxiety, despite sleeping fewer hours, managing more people and having higher occupational demands.

One widely supported explanation is that professions like this allow people a greater sense of control  – by setting their own schedules and determining how to tackle workplace challenges – and this outweighs the stressful demands of the position.

Having a very undemanding job is bad – it’s boring, with little scope for feelings of accomplishment – but having demands that exceed your abilities is bad too, as they cause harmful stress. The sweet spot is where the demands placed on you match your abilities: a fulfilling challenge.

What should you aim for in a dream job?

8,000 Hours applied the research on positive psychology about what makes for a fulfilling life and combined them with research on job satisfaction, to come up with six key ingredients of a dream job. (If you want to dig into the evidence in more depth, see our evidence review.

These are the six key ingredients the website identified as being essential to a dream job.

1. Work that’s engaging

What really matters in job happiness is not your salary, status, type of company and so on, but what you do day-by-day, hour-by-hour.

Engaging work is work that draws you in and holds your attention. It’s the reason an hour spent editing a spread sheet can feel like pure drudgery, while an hour playing a computer game can feel like no time at all: computer games are designed to be as engaging as possible.

But what makes computer games engaging while office admin isn’t? Researchers have identified four factors:

  1. The freedom to decide how to perform your work.
  2. Clear tasks, with a clearly defined start and end.
  3. Variety in the types of task.
  4. Feedback, so you know how well you’re doing

2. Work that helps others

The following jobs have the four ingredients of engaging work listed above, but when asked over 90% of people doing them say they don’t find them meaningful:

  • Revenue analyst
  • Fashion designer
  • TV newscast director

These jobs, however, are seen as meaningful by almost everyone who does them:

  • Fire service officer
  • Nurse / midwife
  • Neurosurgeon

The key difference is that a big part of the second set of jobs is helping other people.

There’s a growing amount of evidence that helping others is a key ingredient for life satisfaction: people who volunteer are less depressed and healthier; a randomised study showed that performing a random act of kindness makes the giver happier; a global survey found that people who donate to charity are as satisfied with their lives as those who earn twice as much.

Helping others isn’t the only route to a meaningful career, but it could be one of the most powerful.

3. Work you’re good at

Being good at your work gives you a sense of achievement; it’s a key ingredient of life satisfaction.

Being good at your job gives you the power to negotiate for the other components of a fulfilling career such as the ability to work on meaningful projects, undertake engaging tasks and earn fair pay. If people value your contribution, you can ask for these in return.

Because of this, skill ultimately trumps interest. Even if you love music, if you pursue it as a career but aren’t good at it you won’t succeed.

That doesn’t mean you should only do work you’re already good a; it just means it’s important you have the potential to get good at it.

4. Work with supportive colleagues

It’s easier said than done, but if you dislike your colleagues and work for a boss you don’t like, you’re probably not going to be satisfied in your job.

5. Lack of major negatives

To be satisfied, everything above is important. But what’s also important is the absence of things that make work unpleasant. These are linked to job dissatisfaction:

  • A long commute, especially if it’s over an hour by bus.
  • Very long hours.
  • Pay you feel is unfair.
  • Job insecurity.

Although these sound obvious, people often overlook them. The negative consequences of a long commute, for example, can be enough to outweigh many other positive factors.

6. Work that fits with the rest of your life

You don’t have to get all the ingredients of a fulfilling life from your job, of course it’s possible to find a job that pays the rent and bills and excel in a side project – getting your satisfaction from this – or to find meaning through philanthropy or volunteering, or to build great relationships outside of work.

In the same month that we found out only 15% of young people feel confident in their ability to secure their dream job, PeoplePerHour – the UK’s leading freelance marketplace – revealed that 71% of Britain’s employed workforce have considered starting their own business due to dissatisfaction with their jobs. They researched what makes a ‘dream business’.

What does a ‘dream business’ look like?

For prospective entrepreneurs, a dream business would be:

  • Working as a team: Two thirds of Brits would want to work as a team (69%)
  • Keeping it in the ‘family’: 62% of Brits would hire friends and 55% would hire family to work in their dream business
  • Passion, work/life balance and flexible hours: being able to do something they feel passionate about (43%), have a better work life balance (39%) and the ability to work flexible hours (32%)
  • Top sectors for prospective businesses: Creative art & design (13%), business consultancy & management and IT (12%), retail (8%) and leisure and hospitality & (12%)
  • The top five qualities prospective entrepreneurs look for in their dream team: Honesty (31%), humour (31%), work ethic (28%), loyalty (30%) and ability to work in harmony in a team (25%)
  • Brits’ ideal business size is 1 – 10 people (56%)

There were some interesting regional differences when it comes to the entrepreneurialism and the dream business. Outside of London, for example, Scotland tops the list for budding entrepreneurs (81%); one in five budding entrepreneurs in East Midlands (21%) would hire their ex to work in their dream business; and the North East tops the list for keeping it in the family, with 60% saying they would hire family to work in their business.

There are also some interesting differences when it comes to age. 69% of millennials would hire friends in their business, while only 21% of over 45s would do the same, and 64% of millennials would hire family into their business while vs 20% of over 45s. 

Being your own boss

PeoplePerHour compared the responses from the employed workforce with opinions of over 290 small business founders. While many mature workers are considering starting their own business, currently 81% of small business owners surveyed actually started their business before the age of 45.

What is consistent, however, is the importance of flexibility: 54% said they wanted the opportunity to work flexible hours and 47% said they are driven by having a better work/life balance. The good news for aspiring entrepreneurs is that while 73% of founders were afraid of not having regular income and 53% were afraid of failing before they started their business, a resounding 66% now consider their business to be a success.

“It’s proof that if you can remove or at least reduce the fears, then starting your own business can lead to great personal success,” says Xenios Thrasyvoulou, founder and CEO of PeoplePerHour. “Whether you start your business at 25 or 45, you can realise your career ambitions. Access to technology has significantly reduced the risks associated with running your own business. Today, you can source talent flexibly and cost efficiently, you can work remotely and minimise your overhead. It’s technology like PeoplePerHour that reduces the risk and drives the change.”

Xenios continues: “Lack of flexibility in the daily grind is a big driver for leaving the workforce and starting a business. Despite the rise of new working communities complete with pool tables, coffee machines and beer at 3pm, the reality is that the workforce aspires to the flexibility and rewards of running their own business. What’s great to see is that mature workers are least afraid to take the plunge. You no longer have to be young to turn your idea into business reality.”

He concludes: “Being an entrepreneur has endless potential - and we are a nation ready to embrace our work dream.”


Recruiting school leavers? We can help