“Will getting a college degree really make me happy?” a friend once asked me.

I sat back and thought for a minute. I had just finished my degree in engineering, was working in a job that had absolutely nothing to do with my major, and I was happy. I made enough money to live on and I enjoyed most days of work. That’s pretty much all you can ask for when you’re fresh out of college, but was it my degree that actually made me happy or something else?

The degree itself won’t make you happy, but the potential it gives you might.

college major and job satisfactionStudents with some degrees tend to be happier than students with others after they graduate. There’s data to back this up, and it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. People go to school for many different reasons, but ultimately, they all want to make enough money to pay for their needs and do a job that is satisfying or rewarding.

Psychology majors have been reported to have the lowest job satisfaction percentage overall (just 26% according to the Wall Street Journal), and many speculate that it’s because job options for those with just an undergraduate degree are severely limited. It’s likely that many have had to take work outside their field, and probably aren’t getting paid very well either.

Meanwhile, chemical engineering (54% job satisfaction) majors have likely had no trouble getting work in their field, and are probably making $67k or more per year. A surface-level analysis will tell you that a major like chemical engineering will make you happy and offer you a salary that will make your peers in the liberal arts pretty jealous. But, this doesn’t tell us the whole story of job satisfaction.

What about those who have jobs within their major?

As I mentioned above, many psychology majors end up working outside their major in order to make ends meet. In doing research for this article, I found another interesting study that seems to fly in the face of the surface-level theory presented above. This study indicates that people who studied the arts were happier when they stayed in their profession – even if it meant they made very little money.

job satisfaction liberal arts majors

For example, of those who studied dance or choreography, only 9% made over $50,000 per year, but 97% of those who stayed in the profession were satisfied with their job. Compare that with the 88% job satisfaction rate for architects, 64% of whom make over $50k per year, and you see that the income to job satisfaction link breaks down quickly.

It’s also important to note that the above correlations only hold for people who stayed in their area of study. I don’t have job satisfaction data for those who did not.

The common myth: more money makes people happier

I think the previous study pretty much disproves the theory that money buys happiness, but in case you’re a person who demands more, there was a great piece in the New York Times about this published in 2010.

The study that comprised the backbone of the article indicated that when an individual’s household income level hits $75,000, happiness on a day-to-day basis does not increase. Now, this study doesn’t indicate that pursuing a higher salary is bad, but it does tell us a little more about why some people pursue different things than others“Wanting money is not a recipe for disaster, but wanting money and not getting it [is a] recipe for disaster,” said Daniel Kahneman (a professor in psychology, by the way) who was interviewed for the piece.

It ultimately comes down to what an individual’s goals are in life. If money is a personal goal, a person won’t be happy unless she’s pursuing it and making progress. If money isn’t the individual’s prime priority, she won’t be dissatisfied when there isn’t more and more coming in, so long as she is making enough to do the things that are on her priority list.

Final lesson: pursue what you love

So, regardless of your major, whether it be marketing, public relations, English, engineering, or underwater basket weaving, make sure that you love the work you do and that you are pursuing things that make you happy. Keep your goals realistic, and know how much (or how little) your salary needs to be in order to take care of your necessities. Even if your dream job doesn’t pay as well as another, you’ll do it better and be happier overall if you pursue it anyway…even if you are a Psychology major. ;-)