They may not enjoy the most prestige – and they're certainly not among the highest paid – but members of the nation's clergy are among the happiest of the country's workers.
That's one finding in a new University of Chicago report that tracked job satisfaction and overall happiness with a variety of professions.
The results seem to have little to do with salary – though skill and education factors in – and lots to do with helping others and creative expression. Firefighters, educators, artists, and physical therapists are all among the most satisfied in their professions.
And clergy, surprisingly, top both lists.
"One wants certain material benefits, but the bottom line in a person's life may not be their income – it may be 'Am I happy? Am I getting satisfaction out of this job?' " says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. "It may be something people want to consider." Mr. Smith compiled the report, released Tuesday, using several years' of data from the General Social Survey, which asks a variety of questions in face-to-face interviews of a representative sample of Americans. It analyzed data from more than 50,000 people, and included occupations that had at least 24 people.
It's the first time, Smith says, that job satisfaction has been broken down to this level of specific occupation, and he was surprised to see clergy at the top.
"We expected high-prestige jobs to have more satisfaction and better happiness," he explains – a hypothesis that was largely supported by the results. "But among the high-prestige jobs, it's those that involve caring for and helping others that put them high."
For their part, clergy members say they can understand why their profession leads to happiness, despite its reputation as a tough job. "I feel enormously privileged in that my work overlaps with my passion and sense of calling," says Lillian Daniel, senior minister at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Glen Ellyn, Ill. "There are parts of the ministry that feel like work, but most of my day is spent doing things that I would love to do as a volunteer."
In the past week, for instance, Reverend Daniel read 26 faith papers written by eighth-graders preparing for confirmation and wrote specific blessings for each child. "It was creative, meaningful, exciting," she says. "Even in the midst of funerals you feel that it's the most crucial work you do. It might be hard, but you'd never get to the end and say, 'What's the point?' "
As she listens to the other jobs that have high satisfaction, Daniel chuckles. "I would say all those jobs – except maybe firefighter – represent a piece of what I do."
Kenneth Carder, a retired United Methodist bishop, agrees. "It's one of the few generalists left in our society," he says. He spent more than 30 years as pastor of local congregations and later joined Duke University's divinity school to teach aspiring clergy. He asks his students tough questions to make sure they're ready for some of the hardships – living in a fishbowl, living with ambiguities, helping people in difficult circumstances – but he says the rewards are significant.
"One of the things human beings have to have in order to survive is a sense of meaning," Bishop Carder says. "Pastors are able to immerse themselves in both understanding what is of ultimate meaning, and also to engage with people who are also in search of meaning."
Some other professions that might have been expected to score high – lawyers, doctors, bankers, and other well-compensated, high-prestige jobs – did well, Smith says, but weren't in the top dozen. Some 58 percent of physicians and 52 percent of lawyers declared themselves very satisfied.
One of the more striking differences, Smith notes, is between police and firefighters – two professions that on the surface may seem similar. While 80 percent of firefighters declared themselves very satisfied, just 59 percent of police did.
The difference, he suggests, might have to do with the people each interact with and the kind of feedback they get. "Firefighters get a much more positive response, and they're not dealing with the kinds of problems that police officers deal with – the worst of society."
Those professions at the very bottom were generally what Smith expected – waiters, laborers, cashiers, and other menial jobs with low pay and few skills required. The very least satisfied workers: roofers.
This isn't the first time research has shown clergy to have a high level of satisfaction.
When Jackson Carroll, an emeritus professor of religion and society at Duke, looked into the issue several years ago, he says he expected to find low morale and dissatisfaction, given the media and attention to ministers' complaints. Instead, clergy in a variety of denominations said they were happy, despite some frustrations with isolation and the difficulty in separating their personal and public lives.
"Despite some of the problems of recent years they face and some they create themselves, clergy are still respected and admired members of the community," says Dr. Carroll. "That gives a degree of satisfaction not only from their own sense of calling, but from the fact that congregations and others in the community they live in accord them respect."