4 things to look for in a job—besides more money—that could make you happier

March 17, 2022, 9:05 PM UTC

It’s not always worth the money.

Negotiating a job offer can bring the possibility of better benefits, better pay, a better title, and any other number of perks. Amid today’s skyrocketing rates of turnover—the so-called Great Resignation—millions of Americans realize there’s a better deal available to them out there. But what if the better deal doesn’t include a salary increase?

That’s what Lara Hogan preaches (sometimes).

Hogan, a sought-after leadership coach who mainly works in the tech space, says many people in pursuit of a certain title or certain company lose sight of the integral question: What do they actually want in a role? 

Earlier this month, Hogan tweeted out a worksheet template she’d made, which grew out of her coaching conversations about job changes. The bottom line, she’s routinely found, is no matter how fancy a new job is on paper, if it doesn’t meet someone’s unique needs and wants, it’s not worth it. 

Sacrificing the nice-to-haves

Though it may seem unusual, taking a pay cut for a more fulfilling job is actually becoming more common. Prudential’s latest Pulse survey, which drew from a national sample of 2,000 workers, found that one-third of those who reported changing jobs over the past two years took a pay cut. 

Hogan says it’s coming up more and more often for her. “After a particular topic or framework comes up multiple times in my coaching calls, I think, ‘Time to make a worksheet,’” she tells Fortune. “Given how many people are thinking about career changes, these questions are coming up so often.”

The worksheet is titled “4 Lists to Help You Identify Your Next Role.” It features four columns to be filled out: your must-haves, your don’t-cares, your nice-to-haves, and what you’re optimizing for, a one-liner that sums up your must-haves. 

“When you start interviewing and making decisions about what you want to do next,” Hogan has written, “ask yourself: Would this actually help me achieve what I’m optimizing for? If you need to make a decision between two really great roles, ask yourself: Which of these helps me with what I’m optimizing for most?”

Job titles are mostly meaningless, Hogan tells Fortune. “They get in the way. You should stop thinking about titles, and start thinking about what kind of work you want to be doing, and what you don’t care about.”

In coaching sessions, Hogan says she hears a lot of “shoulds” from her clients. “They say, ‘I should care about increasing my salary at my next job,’ or, ‘I should get a promotion.’” 

This is why her worksheet includes the don’t-care column; not everyone necessarily needs to prioritize those things in every new job. 

“Maybe, for this next season in life, they don’t need to care about making more money, or work/life balance,” Hogan suggests. “I honestly think that’s the trap a lot of people are falling into right now, and that makes them feel stagnant. When they prioritize things that should matter instead of what actually does, they’re limiting themselves from what they actually need or want.”

How to really solve burnout

Hogan sees people who say they’re really burned out, and their first priority is a healthy work/life balance. “They don’t care about the size of the company or team, even if in the past, it really mattered.”

With career changes, a sense of progression or linearity can be a trap you can fall into, Hogan says. Focus on the “what I’m optimizing for” category—which some of her clients have filled in with “recovering from burnout,” “surviving parenting during COVID,” and “liking and respecting the leadership team even over my ability to grow my skills in the next role.” 

One in five workers said they’d be willing to take a pay cut—of a median 10% of their salary—if it meant a better work/life balance, or leaving the job market entirely to work for themselves.

In an ideal world, fulfilling work would also offer a pay bump. But for many, as Hogan pointed out, optimizing for all-around happiness rarely lets workers down. 

In December, Devinder Lamsar, a communications director in Toronto, left her job—and her stock options—at Restaurant Brands International, for another, lower-paying job as a freelance account director at a social impact consulting firm. 

“I’ve never been more fulfilled,” Lamsar tells Fortune. “The benefit of working on fulfilling projects with an incredible team more than offsets any salary difference.”

Her new role is fully remote, which allows her the chance to drop her daughter off at day care before logging on for the day, another crucial perk. “If the pandemic taught us anything,” she says, “it’s that life is too short to be unhappy at work.”

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