science of us

You’ll Be Happier at Work If Your Job Meets These Two Psychological Needs

Photo: Fred Ramage/Getty Images

I used to have a job embalming and dissecting dead bodies for a local medical school, which used them to teach students about surgery and anatomy. Since then, I always “win” any debate about who’s had the worst job. And yet, as unpleasant and unsettling as this job often was, it had real upsides: I had a lot of control over my own day, and I was pretty good at the job, too.

And this, as it turned out, was enough to keep me pretty happy at what was a considerably grim job. Most of us work because we need the money, of course. But because our brains aren’t solely concerned with satisfying basic organic needs, money isn’t the only reward our jobs can bring. Some scientists differentiate between survival needs and “psychological” needs, which are things that aren’t strictly essential for our biological survival, but that we find fulfilling for more cognitively sophisticated reasons.

Broadly speaking, there are two of these psychological needs that are most important to meet, if your goal is to be happier at work. Even when your co-workers are cadavers.

A sense of control.

In the 1960s, psychologist Julian Rotter developed the concept of the locus of control: If you think you are responsible for what happens to you, you’re said to have an internal locus of control. If you believe you’re at the mercy of others and external events, you have an external locus of control. Several studies have linked an internal locus of control to higher levels of well-being and happiness, even health, in groups as diverse as college students and elderly war veterans. Makes sense; if you control events, then you can prevent bad things from happening. If you don’t, there’s little you can do to prevent the bad things. Which sounds more stressful?

Your work can reward you with a sense of control, but it can also provide a loss or lack of control, which can be psychologically harmful, sometimes even clinically so. Jobs that strip you of autonomy with strict rules/policies (dress codes, micromanagement, etc.) and/or make you constantly beholden to others (telesales, retail, etc.) are widely regarded as unpleasant and a source of stress. It may be that businesses insisting “the customer is always right” has actually had a very damaging effect on their workforce.

A sense of competence.

Related to control is competence: our ability to do something and do it well. The brain’s ability to accurately assess our performance and abilities is a crucial cognitive function. It allows us to make valid decisions about what we should and shouldn’t do. You’re walking down the street and see someone collapse; you DO get your phone out and call an ambulance, because you know you’re capable of this. You DON’T try to perform open-heart surgery on the pavement using your car keys and a ballpoint pen, because you know that’s beyond you and would cause considerable harm. Exactly how the brain judges its/our own performance is uncertain. There is evidence linking the tissue density, the amount of important gray matter packed in, of the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in the frontal lobe, to accuracy of self-appraisal, so presumably that area plays a role. But in any case, our brains seem to place a lot of value on competence.

Our jobs give us ample opportunity to acquire and demonstrate competence; if you can’t achieve a minimum level of competence in your job then you usually lose it, and given how the brain recognizes our work as important for our survival, the desire for competence is bound to be high. It also ties into our brain’s effort-evaluating system, as doing something we’re not competent at is considerably more effort than something we’re an expert at. Driving to the store to pick up milk is a mundane chore for many, but for those who can’t drive or don’t know where the store is, it requires a Herculean effort. Clearly, our competence is an important facet of our brain’s underlying calculations.

This can even be demonstrated in the very structure of our brains. Experienced London taxi drivers have been shown to have enlarged regions of the hippocampus, specifically the regions dedicated to complex spatial navigation, and musicians proficient in instruments like piano or violin have been shown to have significantly larger areas of the motor cortex dedicated to fine hand and finger movements. Our jobs essentially compel us to perform actions and behaviors repeatedly, which means our brains have time to adapt to them, making us far more proficient at them. And this can make us happier, because the brain likes being competent.

Also, many jobs offer a variety of ways to measure our competence. Sales targets, bonuses, promotions, performance reviews, pay grades, employee-of-the-month awards — these are all things which provide a reasonably quick and definitive measure of how “good” someone is at their job. Our brains do seem to like measuring things, and appear to have specific regions dedicated to doing so. A 2006 study by Castelli, Glaser, and Butterworth suggested that the intraparietal sulcus, part of the brain’s parietal lobe, is integral to the brain’s processing of measurements, and that it even has separate systems for specific, numerical measurements (e.g. “There are 38 french fries on my plate”) and more “analogue,” relative measurements (e.g. “There are more french fries on his plate than mine, I am never eating here again”). The intraparietal sulcus has also been regularly implicated as having a fundamental role in integrating information supplied by the senses and linking it to our motor systems, and other facets that control our behavior, so this all adds up.

So, for various reasons, our brains desire a sense of competence, and when we feel we’re competent, we’re more likely to be happy. Our work offers us greater opportunities to improve our competence, and to have this competence objectively confirmed, which is nice. (Unless of course, our competence is criticized, which is not.)

Work also offers other types of reward, such as exposure to novel things and situations (something the brain likes, as the previous chapter revealed, and that explains why jobs that are crushingly repetitive are often described so negatively) and greater opportunities to interact with other people and make social connections (covered later). The take-home point here is that, while most people work because they need the money, the brain’s mechanisms offer several other ways in which work can reward us and satisfy instinctive needs and desires, potentially making us happy — even if your job involves dissecting cadavers.

Excerpted from Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From, and Why by Dean Burnett. Copyright © 2018 by Dean Burnett. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Two Psychological Concepts to Know to Be Happier at Work