The Unhappiest Job in America?

The unhappiest job in America, Forbes magazine reports, comes with a six-figure salary, cushy digs, an office assistant on call, expense account travel and a free BlackBerry. Yes, you guessed it, being an associate attorney in a big law firm is the unhappiest job in America. Bartleby the Scrivener, where are you?

The happiest? Why that would be real estate agent, of course. Forget the fact that almost no real estate has sold during the past half-decade (outside of foreclosure auctions); these folks can’t stop smiling every day. Lucky them.

Forbes, which seems to make its editorial living these days publishing silly “Happiest and Unhappiest” lists, didn’t actually do the research behind this taxonomy. That was done by an online job site called CareerBliss, which claims to have polled 65,000 workers on a variety of factors such as working environment, compensation and growth opportunities.

Let’s take a closer look at some of their happiest jobs:

Real estate agent: Sure, you work outdoors and don’t punch a clock, but your cell is on the speed dial of a bunch of stressed-out neurotics. Retirement plan, forget it – you can host open houses when you’re 80! The only way I buy this being the happiest job in America is that 99 percent of the real estate agents in the country got out of the business during the housing recession, so the only ones left to respond to the poll really do love their jobs.

Logistics manager: What does a logistics manager do all day? Tell everybody else what, when and how to do their job. Plus, they have UPS running an Ogilvy-created ad singing their praises. “That’s logistics!” What’s not to like?

Assistant controller: Not head controller, mind you, assistant controller. Yeah, you get all the party time that goes with an accounting career without the loneliness that comes at the top!

Executive assistant: A big problem with this job making the happiest jobs list. What if you are the executive assistant to an associate attorney?

Which leads us to a closer look at the unhappiest jobs.

Law firm associate: I confess to some expertise in this area, having been an associate attorney once myself and allegedly a scholar of lawyer happiness. It is true that many big firm associates live a pretty tough life, once they adapt to those big paychecks. More than a few are miserable, there is no question. But for many others, particularly those who love hard, important work and intellectual challenge, these are great jobs. And those six-figure salaries aren’t bad.

Clerk: CareerBliss offers us no descriptor beyond this plain, homely word. Clerk. Pretty broad category. Includes, I imagine, clerks to Supreme Court justices (the most coveted legal job for a young lawyer) as well as clerks at the Jersey City DMV. Pretty wide range. Me, when I think of clerks, I think of John Cusack in the record store in “High Fidelity,” or Meg Ryan’s bookstore clerk in “You’ve Got Mail.” They seemed pretty happy.

Legal assistant: I guess this answers the question about the happy executive assistant who works for the associate attorney.

The point of all this, of course, is that attempts to quantify jobs as “happy” or “unhappy” is a fool’s errand. Whether one is happy at work or not depends on a wide range of factors that are highly individualized. This is a topic we have covered numerous times in Psychology at Work, but it bears repeating. You are happy in a job when it is a good match for your personal strengths. In other words, if you are the type of person who works best alone on a regular schedule, you will be miserable as a real estate agent. On the other hand, if you love dropping things at a moment’s notice and running across town to show a house, sitting in a law office all day will suck.

For me, I think I will give record store clerk a whirl.