Psychologist logo
Brain, Work and occupational

Work is not its own reward

An exclusive extract from 'The Happy Brain', the new book from neuroscientist, blogger and comedian Dean Burnett.

13 April 2018

Here’s a fact about me: I used to have a job embalming and dissecting dead bodies for a local medical school. They were used to teach students about surgery and anatomy. Since then, I always ‘win’ any debate about who’s had the worst job. But it’s a pyrrhic victory, admittedly.

As unpleasant and unsettling as this job was, though, I did it for nearly two years. Perhaps my experience is more grim than most people’s, but this isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. Many people complain constantly about their awful jobs but still drag themselves to the workplace every day and do what’s expected of them, loathing every minute. Why? How?

The obvious answer is, because they must. We may have created a frighteningly complex world around us, but humans still require essentials like food, water and shelter. But now we don’t go out and find these things ourselves; we buy them. With money. And we get money by working. So surely, it’s wrong to say that our efforts at work aren’t rewarded, because we’re paid for them?

Technically, yes. The brain does recognise money as a valid reward for our efforts, at a fundamental level. Evidence indicates that financial reimbursement provokes a response in parts of the brain like the mesolimbic reward pathway1 that are also stimulated by biologically signifcant rewards (food, sex, etc.). So, getting money makes us feel good. A rat or a pigeon won’t feel the same about money; they’ll just see a handful of metal discs or colourful paper, worth a cursory sniff maybe, but little more. We, however, can grasp the inherent value and importance of money, and that working is how we obtain it.

The importance of money can’t be overstated. There’s a reason the question is often ‘what do you do for a living?’; not having enough money is genuinely a threat to our survival, which explains why Western psychologists rank losing your job in the top ten most stressful things you can experience2. Lack of money also triggers the brain’s ever-sensitive threat-detection system. Working is the most obvious, risk-free, socially acceptable way of preventing this. So, as well as providing a reward for our efforts, money also provides a sense of safety3, hence the term ‘financial security’.

It’s no wonder, then, that we spend so much time working in jobs we detest, despite how much our brains may object to doing so. It also hints at how our work can make us happy, at least partially; as with our homes, satisfying basic needs and providing a sense of safety typically prompts a positive response in our brain. This also explains why our jobs often determine where we choose to live; we need money for a home, and a job for money.

It’s not just about the money though, because as we know the brain habituates to anything that becomes reliable and familiar enough. Your first pay packet can make you very happy; a psychological burden (worrying about paying your bills) has been lifted, and you now have more choice and more financial freedom to do things. But after weeks or months of the same amount of money arriving in your bank at the same time, you become desensitised to it. It’s just that something becoming predictable loses ‘potency’, hence finding £50 in your old trousers feels better than getting your usual £500 pay.

Thankfully, there are other aspects of our work that our brains recognise as rewarding, because our brains aren’t solely concerned with satisfying basic organic needs. Some scientists differentiate between survival needs and ‘psychological’ needs4, which are things that aren’t strictly essential for our biological survival, but that we find fulfilling for more cognitively sophisticated reasons. One of these is a sense of control.

In the 1960s, psychologist Julian Rotter developed the concept of the locus of control5. If you think you are responsible for what happens to you, you’re said to have an internal locus of control. If you believe you’re at the mercy of others and external events, you have an external locus of control. Several studies have linked an internal locus of control to higher levels of wellbeing and happiness, even health, in groups as diverse as college students6 and elderly war veterans7. Makes sense; if you control events, then you can prevent bad things from happening. If you don’t, there’s little you can do to prevent the bad things. Which sounds more stressful?

Some argue that locus of control is an inherent trait, something essentially ‘fixed’, but there’s evidence that it’s more a learned thing, and can be changed via our experiences8. The neurological mechanisms are unclear, but at least one study links locus of control, along with self-esteem and responses to stress, to the size of the hippocampus9, suggesting that experience and memory are indeed key factors. But then, other evidence suggests that a sensitivity to feelings of control and an aversion to losing it forms at a very young age, even before we’re able to walk!10, 11 It’s no wonder that infants really hate the word ‘no’.

Whatever the underlying mechanism, the implications for our work are obvious; if we have a job with authority and responsibility, we’re more likely to perceive a sense of control, which our brain likes, so we end up happier.

Your work can reward you with a sense of control, but it can also provide a loss or lack of control, which can be psychologically harmful, sometimes even clinically so12. Jobs that strip you of autonomy with strict rules/policies (dress codes, micromanagement, etc.) and/or make you constantly beholden to others (telesales, retail, etc.) are widely regarded as unpleasant and a source of stress. It may be that businesses insisting ‘the customer is always right’ has actually had a very damaging effect on their workforce.

Related to control is competence: our ability to do something and do it well. The brain’s ability to accurately assess our performance and abilities is a crucial cognitive function. It allows us to make valid decisions about what we should and shouldn’t do. You’re walking down the street and see someone collapse; you DO get your phone out and call an ambulance, because you know you’re capable of this. You DON’T try to perform open-heart surgery on the pavement using your car-keys and a ballpoint pen, because you know that’s beyond you and would cause considerable harm. Exactly how the brain judges its/our own performance is uncertain. There is evidence linking the tissue density, the amount of important grey matter packed in, of the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex, in the frontal lobe, to accuracy of self-appraisal13, so presumably that area plays a role. But in any case, our brains seem to place a lot of value on competence.

Our jobs give us ample opportunity to acquire and demonstrate competence; if you can’t achieve a minimum level of competence in your job then you usually lose it, and given how the brain recognises our work as important for our survival, the desire for competence is bound to be high. It also ties into our brain’s effort-evaluating system, as doing something we’re not competent at is considerably more effort than something we’re an expert at. Driving to the shops to pick up milk is a mundane chore for many, but for those who can’t drive or don’t know where the shops are, it requires a herculean effort. Clearly, our competence is an important facet of our brain’s underlying calculations.

This can even be demonstrated in the very structure of our brains. Experienced London taxi drivers have been shown to have enlarged regions of the hippocampus, specifically the regions dedicated to complex spatial navigation14, and musicians proficient in instruments like piano or violin have been shown to have significantly larger areas of the motor cortex dedicated to fine hand and finger movements15. Our jobs essentially compel us to perform actions and behaviours repeatedly, which means our brains have time to adapt to them, making us far more proficient at them. And this can make us happier, because the brain likes being competent.

Also, many jobs offer a variety of ways to measure our competence. Sales targets, bonuses, promotions, performance reviews, pay grades, employee-of-the-month awards – these are all things which provide a reasonably quick and definitive measure of how ‘good’ someone is at their job. Our brains do seem to like measuring things, and appear to have specific regions dedicated to doing so. A study by Castelli, Glaser and Butterworth16 suggested that the intraparietal sulcus, part of the brain’s parietal lobe, is integral to the brain’s processing of measurements, and that it even has separate systems for specific, numerical measurements (e.g. ‘There are thirty-eight chips on my plate’) and more ‘analogue’, relative measurements (e.g. ‘There are more chips on his plate than mine, I am never eating here again’). The intraparietal sulcus has also been regularly implicated as having a fundamental role in integrating information supplied by the senses and linking it to our motor systems, and other facets that control our behaviour17, so this all adds up.

And yes, pun intended.

So, for various reasons, our brains desire a sense of competence, and when we feel we’re competent, we’re more likely to be happy. Our work offers us greater opportunities to improve our competence, and to have this competence objectively confirmed, which is nice. (Unless of course, our competence is criticised, which is not.)

Work also offers other types of reward, such as exposure to novel things and situations (something the brain likes, as the previous chapter revealed, and that explains why jobs that are crushingly repetitive are often described so negatively) and greater opportunities to interact with other people and make social connections (covered later). The take-home point here is that, while most people work because they need the money, the brain’s mechanisms offer several other ways in which work can reward us and satisfy instinctive needs and desires, potentially making us happy – even if your job involves dissecting cadavers.

The Happy Brain by Dean Burnett is published today by Guardian Faber (£12.99).

Find more from Dean in our archive.


  1. Cummins, R. A. and H. Nistico, ‘Maintaining life satisfaction: the role of positive cognitive bias’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2002, 3(1), pp. 37–69
  2. Sharot, T., et al., ‘Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias’, Nature, 2007, 450(7166), pp. 102–5
  3. Koob, G. F. and M. Le Moal, ‘Plasticity of reward neurocircuitry and the “dark side” of drug addiction’, Nature Neuroscience, 2005, 8(11), pp. 1442–4
  4. Arias-Carrion, O. and E. Poppel, ‘Dopamine, learning, and reward- seeking behavior’, Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis, 2007, 67(4), pp. 481–8
  5. Koob, G. F. and M. Le Moal, ‘Addiction and the brain antireward system’, Annual Review of Psychology, 2008, 59, pp. 29–53
  6. Gardner, E. L., ‘Introduction: addiction and brain reward and anti- reward pathways’, Advances in Psychosomatic Medicine, 2011, 30, pp. 22–60
  7. Arató, M., et al., ‘Elevated CSF CRF in suicide victims’, Biological Psychiatry, 25(3), pp. 355–9
  8. Knoll, A. T. and W. A. Carlezon, ‘Dynorphin, stress, and depression’, Brain Research, 2010, 1314C, p. 56
  9. Koob, G. F. and M. L. Moal, ‘Drug abuse: hedonic homeostatic dysregulation’, Science, 1997, 278(5335), p. 52
  10. ‘A tale of anxiety and reward – the role of stress and pleasure in addiction relapse’, The Brain Bank North West, 2014,
  11. Michl, P., et al., ‘Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2014, 9(2), pp. 150–7
  12. Chang, Luke J., et al., ‘Triangulating the neural, psychological, and economic bases of guilt aversion’, Neuron, 2011, 70(3), pp. 560–72
  13. Gilovich, T., V. H. Medvec and K. Savitsky, ‘The spotlight effect in social judgment: an egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, 78(2), p. 211
  14. Silani, G., et al., ‘Right supramarginal gyrus is crucial to overcome emotional egocentricity bias in social judgments’, Journal of Neuroscience, 2013, 33(39), pp. 15466–76
  15. Wolpert, S., ‘Brain reacts to fairness as it does to money and chocolate, study shows’, UCLA Newsroom, 21 April 2008
  16. Tabibnia, G. and M. D. Lieberman, ‘Fairness and cooperation are rewarding’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2007, 1118(1), pp. 90–101
  17. Denke, C., et al., ‘Belief in a just world is associated with activity in insula and somatosensory cortices as a response to the perception of norm violations’, Social Neuroscience, 2014, 9(5), pp. 514–21