The happiest, least stressful, most meaningful jobs in America

Chris Pryor, director of forest management for the New England Forestry Foundation, in the Hershey Mountain Wilderness in New Hampton in 2020. (Elizabeth Franz/Reuters)


Envy carpenters because they do the happiest, most meaningful work on earth. Or at least they think so. Farmers too.

According to our Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of more than 13,000 American time-use journals, agriculture, logging and forestry have the highest levels of self-reported happiness — and the lowest levels of self-reported stress — of any major industry category. A survey. (Additional reports have increased our focus on loggers and foresters, but almost anyone who works on farms or in the forest stands out.)

Time use surveys typically ask people to record what they do at any time of the day. But in the last four surveys, between 2010 and 2021, they asked a subset of those people—more than 13,000 of them—how meaningful those activities were, or how happy, sad, stressed, distressed and tired they were on a six-point scale. scope. As you might imagine, activities like playing with your grandchildren bring happiness and meaning, but waiting or going to work is less rewarding.

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But the two are not always connected. Health and social workers rate themselves as the most important jobs anyone (apart from the lauded lumberjacks) but rank low on the happiness scale. They also rank high on stress.

The most stressful industries are industry, including finance and insurance, followed by education and a broad group of professional and technical industries, a sector that includes one of the most stressful professions: lawyers. Together, they paint a simple picture: white-collar workers are significantly more stressed than blue-collar workers.

If our friends lumberjacks and farmers do the least stressful jobs, their jobs are known to be particularly dangerous and they report the highest levels of illness at work. To understand why, we zoomed in to look at the non-work categories.

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The most meaningful and joy-inducing activities were religious and spiritual activities, which do not tell us much about farming or forestry—at least not in the usual way in the United States. But the second happiest activity—sports, exercise, and recreation—helps spark activity.

Like farming, recreation is a place of both happiness and suffering. And both events have one thing in common: they take place outdoors. Better in nature. A little soreness is a sign of physical exertion and the cost of getting out.

With that in mind, we ran the numbers again, this time for each event location. While your workplace may be the most stressful place in the universe, we’ve found that the great outdoors ranks in the top three for happiness and meaning—only your place of worship is consistently ranked higher.

Researchers in the social and medical sciences have found a strong connection between mental health and green space, or being outdoors. Seeing a tree from your window can also help you recover from illness faster. So imagine how empowering it is to be near that tree, even if you’re cutting it down like our friend the woodcutter.

This proximity to nature is at the heart of the appeal of forestry. Mike Weatherby is now the president of the board of the Maine Museum of Forestry and Logging and his wife, Alyssa, is the marketing manager for the Woodworking Shearers Brigade, the Axe-Woman Foresters of Maine. But his long journey into forestry began on a bridge while driving home from a seasonal job near the coastal scrub forests of the Everglades.

“Why am I leaving the forest?” Why am I going back to the office?’ And I stopped there in the middle of the bridge and turned around,” Weatherby said. He would fight forest fires in the area, work as a conservationist, and eventually marry a world champion lumberjack: Alice is the best at ax throwing, log pushing and crosscutting, and the only person to ever roll a log. Mississippi River. (It only took 30 minutes!)

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Dana Chandler, co-owner of Family Tree Forestry in South Carolina, compared working in the woods to aromatherapy, not just therapy. It’s tough being in this industry, especially as an African American woman, but what other job gives you the constant smell of pine sap, fresh wood chips, marsh soil, and rotting swamps?

“Even on your worst day – something breaks and you have to take wood to the mill – the wind blows, the familiar smell – you swallow the sap of that pine tree – and it just takes you to the ground. immediate peace,” Chandler said. “It’s therapy. The forest is therapy, the forest is therapy. It can be the worst day, but when you get out of here? The forest takes it all away.”

Chandler’s father was a forester. So was his grandfather. He grew up with his sister exploring the creeks and underbelly of the Carolina woods while his father sawed and chipped. And now her daughter, Lana, is making her way around Dana’s surgery, effortlessly tossing out industry jargon and visiting the local wildlife — and they recently found a family of baby raccoons! — while learning about the forest. Chandler said she would be thrilled to have 5-year-old Lana join the family business.

“With all the challenges they face, I’ve never heard a forester say, ‘I’m going to make it,'” Chandler said. “They say, ‘I don’t want to do anything else.'” “It humbles you,” he says of the forest.

Like Wetherbee, Leslie Boby was not raised in industry or originally intended to live in the trees.

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“Actually, I grew up in Chicago, so I had no idea about forestry. … I just wanted to work outside,” says Bobi, who heads the Southern Regional Forestry in Athens. “I grew up in a family with no history at home.”

That instinct led him from teaching forestry in the Peace Corps in Kenya to fighting wildfires in the dusty ponderosa and pinyon pines of Northern New Mexico. Finally, to his current position supporting forest-focused outreach and education at 13 Southern state land-grant universities.

But the happiness of foresters is not only outside, says Bobi. Forestry forces work on a slower time scale. It encourages having a generational perspective.

“Now there’s a time when you’re planting trees that you’re not going to see,” he said. “It speaks to something bigger than yourself. … Your work lives on and someone else will benefit in a tangible way from your efforts.”

The important thing, he said, is that you know your job as a forester is sustainable. As your trees grow, they absorb carbon from the air, providing habitat for wildlife and contributing to regional ecosystems. Once they’re harvested, their carbon can be stored for the long term as household staples or as paper packaging instead of the fuel-heavy plastics that end up in America’s landfills.

“People are mission-driven,” Bobi said. “They feel it’s important what they’re doing, even if the financial rewards aren’t nearly enough.”

Hi! The data department is still looking for quantitative questions! What makes you wonder: Are political donors as old as our politicians? Which countries drink the most alcohol? Which countries use it most water? Just ask!

If your request is a column push, we will send an official information department button and ID card. This week’s button goes to the one and only Nathan Yau, a longtime visualization inspiration the work FlowingData created this special column.


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