AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

Ever wonder why some people working what are arguably some of the worst jobs out there still seem so happy? It's not because they make a ton of money, or work super convenient hours. 

They're not famous, and they're definitely not working their dream jobs. But a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology affirms that the keys to happiness are neither fame nor fortune. Rather, the researchers report that we're happiest in life when we have autonomy and competency.

"What really does it for people is engagement in self-chosen or personally meaningful activities (autonomy), in which they are reasonably effective or skillful (competence), and which also permit them to connect with or contribute to others (relatedness)," study author Dr. Kennon M. Sheldon, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, told Reuters Health.

Here's why control and competency are important.

1. Control is satisfying.

Psychologist Julian Rotter came up with the concept of locus of control in the 1960s. He suggested that, if you think you're responsible for what happens to you, you have an internal locus of control. On the other hand, if you don't tend to believe in free will and believe that you're at the mercy of external factors, you have an external locus of control. A wealth of research suggests that internal locus of control is linked to higher levels of happiness, health and overall wellbeing.

So, a job in which you have autonomy can actually fulfill you even more. When you're not stuck reporting to others or held to extreme standards and expected to adhere to strict rules and regulations, you inevitably have a higher internal locus of control.

2. Competence is morale-inducing.

Science suggests that while learning new skills might be stressful in the moment, these skills can make us happy in the long term. Research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies finds that people who work hard at improving a skill or learning something new, such as mastering a math problem or trying to cook a new recipe, may experience stress while they're in the act of it, but they experience greater happiness on a daily basis in the longer term. 

"No pain, no gain is the rule when it comes to gaining happiness from increasing our competence at something," said Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. "People often give up their goals because they are stressful, but we found that there is benefit at the end of the day from learning to do something well. And what's striking is that you don't have to reach your goal to see the benefits to your happiness and well-being."

In fact, another study suggests that "capability is obviously required for happiness, though not all capabilities are equally functional," and less obvious is that "happiness fosters many capabilities, in particular, health."  In other words, happiness and capability have a reciprocal relationship. When we're capable, we're usually happier; and when we're happy, we're often more capable, largely because happiness has a positive impact on our health.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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