Counseling is not an easy job. It looks noble but can be depressing. Still, there are people willing to do the job. But are they happy?
The answer seems to be yes - although not all the time. Research shows that most mental health professionals are satisfied with their job. But at the end of the day, they are humans like everyone else. They have bad days and sometimes, a client’s problem can hit too close to home. At the same time, the job can be hugely rewarding and interesting, with every day bringing a new challenge.
In this article I’ll take a look at the different factors that influence counseling psychologists' happiness, relying both on research and personal experience, and try to answer the question, are counseling psychologists happy?
The cons of being a psychologist
As I wrote in the article about compassion, one of the questions I get asked most often is “Isn’t it difficult and depressing to listen to other people’s troubles all day?”
This is often followed by, “I couldn’t do it!” or, occasionally, “My friends tell me I’m a good listener and I always wanted to study psychology…”
Of course, it takes a lot more than being a naturally good listener to be a psychologist. Listening is only half of the job, you also need to be able to communicate clearly. You need to have empathy, but not too much or you’ll risk empathy burnout. In addition to an interest to understand what makes other people tick, you need keen introspection skills.
And, of course, you need patience to gently encourage change as well as to deal with the heaps of paperwork that come with the job.
Clearly, the biggest con is that it is not easy being a psychologist. It’s a mentally taxing job. On the other hand, I would argue that so is any job in the service industry or teaching.
The pros of being a psychologist
Despite the difficulty, there are people who enjoy being a psychologist. One of the key reasons is that helping others is rewarding.
I got a few cards from some of the students I’ve worked with at the end of the school year, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up at the heartfelt thanks. Similarly, I cherish every time an internet counseling client writes that I’ve been a help to them.
Secondly, psychology and counseling are interesting. For example, in Estonia (where I'm from) the psychology bachelor’s programs are constantly some of the most popular degree courses at universities: in 2020, the program offered by Tallinn University was the 3rd most popular course by the number of applications in the country, while the University of Tartu’s program was 5th.
Of course, there’s far less competition for master’s degree programs (the lowest required qualification to work as a counseling or school psychologist in Estonia). Many students decide to use their psych BA degree in other fields, like human resources, statistics (there’s more math in psychology than you’d expect), or marketing.
But some push bravely on. The internet counseling service I work at uses volunteer counselors, most of whom are last-year bachelor’s or master’s students. Every year, we get more applications than we have available resources for new volunteers, and this year, the competition came out to about two people per place.
The main reason for applying was what you may expect: people want to use their newly-acquired counseling skills to help people. Also, they want to work with real people with real problems, not textbook examples; they want to be challenged.
Having now worked as a school psychologist and an internet counselor for almost four years, I can confirm: there are plenty of real problems to go around. Every new day and every new client brings a new challenge. Your skills are constantly evolving and there’s no such thing as a boring day at the office.
Are psychologists satisfied with the job?
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the pros and cons of being a psychologist. Many are dependent on the country you live and work in, like your salary, required education and qualifications, and the perceived status of the job.
However, on some level, it does boil down to the balance of the difficulty of the job and the satisfaction you find in it.
What about job satisfaction?
In fact, job satisfaction is closely related to happiness. A 2010 meta-analysis reports that in general, job satisfaction is positively related to life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and the absence of negative affect.
However, the same article posits that general subjective well-being may cause job satisfaction, not the other way around. If you’re happy, you’re more likely to be satisfied with your job. Still, there is no denying that dissatisfaction with your job will influence your overall happiness levels.
So what makes a psychologist happy in their job? According to a 2012 study, one of the most important factors is work-life balance, as well as the sense of control at work. Other predictors of job satisfaction include working hours, caseload, therapeutic mode, administrative responsibilities, professional improvement strategies, and negative client interactions.
A 2017 article reports similar results in a sample of pediatric psychologists.
According to both articles, psychologists report generally high job satisfaction, despite the negative effect that some factors can have on job satisfaction.
How trauma affects happiness
Job satisfaction is a pretty universal factor in our subjective well-being. However, there are some aspects of the job that are unique to counseling, or at least the helping professions.
One of them is the highly sensitive nature of the job. People don’t seek counseling when everything is fine, they seek it when something’s wrong. And occasionally, clients’ problems will hit too close to home.
During my first year of internet counseling, I got a message from a client regarding a hard breakup three days after my own. In hindsight, I know that I should’ve referred the client to someone else instead of trying to help them sort through the mess of a breakup while I was yet to begin to recover from mine.
But these things can happen: counselors and psychologists are human like everyone else, and many experiences are shared, some of which may be traumatic.
A 2018 article reports that when it comes to working with similar trauma, there are two predictors of happiness: the number of sessions per client and lower severity of the client’s posttraumatic stress symptoms.
In other words, counselor happiness increased when the number of sessions per client increased and as posttraumatic stress symptoms decreased. The authors hypothesize that the longer a counselor is able to work with a client in distress, the more progress is made and the more satisfaction the counselor experiences, which contributes to happiness.
Regarding the counselor’s own traumatic experiences, the study found that counselors with a personal trauma history have a lower happiness score than counselors without a personal trauma history, but counselors who see clients with trauma similar to theirs were not significantly different than those who do not.
Is self-care the key to happiness?
Another thing I have learned in my - admittedly short - career as a psychologist is that self-care is essential. I’m quick to repeat the familiar flight safety instruction to my students and clients (“Put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then help others”), but over time, I’ve realized the value of this advice in the context of my own career.
It should go without saying that self-care is important for everyone, but even more so for professions like this. You cannot pour from an empty cup and not only is an overworked and stressed psychologist an unhappy psychologist, but they are also liable to make mistakes in their work.
A part of self-care is definitely having a good work-life balance. Having fulfilling hobbies and nurturing your personal relationships promotes happiness. Knowing how to close both the physical and metaphorical door after your workday is an important part of thriving as a psychologist.
Another important part of the psychologist self-care package is supervision. Not only is some form of supervision required in most countries, I know first-hand how helpful it can be.
For most of my career, I have participated in group supervisions, which are perfect for making you feel less alone. Knowing that other professionals have the same questions and concerns worked wonders on my imposter syndrome.
Individual supervision sessions provide a similar, yet distinct feeling of being understood and validated, while also helping me work through difficult cases that have been weighing on my mind.
All of this contributes towards my professional competency and personal happiness derived from succeeding in my job.
Mindfulness is quite a universal self-care technique that everyone can benefit from and psychologists are no exception. A 2007 article reports that teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction to mental health professionals in training significantly decreases stress and negative affect, and increases positive affect and self-compassion.
Do you need to be happy to help others find their happiness?
Looking at the research as well as my own experience, the answer is no, but it certainly helps. Just like with any other job, there are better days and worse days, but the job still needs to get done.
It’s natural to expect mental health professionals to have their life together before giving out advice to others. I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: our lives are mostly together, but we all have our bad days.
I can be all poetic about the importance of self-compassion, but there are days when I’m definitely not compassionate to myself. When this happens, I apply the same techniques I teach my students and clients.
The same applies to overall happiness. Most days, most psychologists are happy, but there will be days when we’re not at 100%. Generally, this doesn’t make us any worse at our job, and if it does, it’s a sign to take a break.
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Counseling psychologists are human like everyone else and that’s what makes us able to do our job. Research shows a generally high job satisfaction among the profession, but everyone can have bad days. Counseling is an emotionally taxing job and sometimes the clients’ problems can hit too close to home. With adequate self-care, however, counselors are happy (and happy to help).