In an attempt to understand what it is that gives people job satisfaction, I have spent time over the past month with someone who I thought would have a great deal of it – Dario Benuzzi, the 59-year-old chief test driver at Ferrari – and someone I thought who wouldn’t have very much at all – Isobel Hoare, a 55-year-old soft drinks tester for Ribena, the blackcurrant cordial manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline.

For obvious reasons, I was looking forward to meeting the former more than the latter. Like Cameron Diaz’s masseur or Bill Gates’ bank manager, chief test driver at Ferrari sounds like one of those occupations that is just too good to be true – a dream job if ever there was one.

Unfortunately, as soon as I arrived at the carmaker’s headquarters in the northern Italian town of Maranello, after a terrifying three-hour drive along the Italian autostrada in a VW Polo, I realised disappointment could be on the cards. For some reason, I had expected the city that is home to the company that produces the most beautiful cars in the world to be, well...beautiful. But Maranello has the feel of a giant industrial estate.

And when Dario arrived, he looked surly and bored. When asked if he could take me for a drive he replied that he didn’t have the time. I pretended not to be disappointed. He rolled his eyes when he discovered that I couldn’t speak Italian and there followed a strange, strained interview in which I posed questions in English (“how many hours do you work?”), he replied in Italian at length, and the Ferrari PR proffered an inexplicably brief translation (“Dario say zis eees something that varies”).

The disappointment continued back in London when I read a full translation of the interview. While he said that he loved his job, he didn’t seem quite as happy as I thought he would be. Asked whether he had the best job in the world, he replied: “People say so.” And he wasn’t exactly ecstatic about his pay and conditions. “I get paid the same as an engineer,” he revealed at one point, adding that he himself drove not a Ferrari but an Alfa Romeo. “But
then money is never enough.”

Conversely, my visit to meet Isobel at the Ribena factory in the Forest of Dean, in south-west England, turned out to be a delight. Isobel seemed to adore every aspect of her job as one of a team of sensory testers, whose advice helps ensure that Ribena is manufactured with a consistent taste.

My morning at the factory began with a taste testing session. This involved being taken to a booth, being given a sample of squash and then being asked to describe it as fully as possible. After sniffing, slurping and thinking about the first sample for five minutes, Isobel shared her description with her colleagues.

“The sample is pale red, still, clear, bright, light reflective,” she began. “There are a few bubbles on the edge of the cup which are gradually dispersing; when swilled no residue remains on the side of the cup and the sample appears to be of a similar thickness to water; it has a moderate impact aroma of confectionary blackcurrant which reminds me of red wine gums; there’s also a hint of artificial sweetener; it has a moderate impact flavour – moderately acidic and sour, moderate blackcurrant; the texture is a similar thickness to water, slight to moderately drying-in-the-mouth; moderately astringent and acidic aftertaste, slight-to-moderately throat-catching and burning.”

While Dario surprised me by using so many words to say so little, Isobel surprised me by using so many words to describe so little. My description for the sample read: “Looks like dentists’ mouthwash, smells like bubblegum, texture of water.” This poor attempt served only to demonstrate that I was among the 90 per cent of the population lacking the right skills to be a Ribena taster. But Isobel’s enthusiasm was so infectious that I left the factory feeling that, given the choice, I would rather test Ribena for a living than Ferraris.

Indeed, the two meetings revealed something about the nature of job satisfaction that the experts do not seem to recognise. According to the happiness industry, job satisfaction is a fixed characteristic in certain jobs. You either have it or you don’t,
and almost every week reports claim to identify who is among the former (recent reports have suggested hairdressers) and the latter (lawyers and architects, apparently).

A recent academic study went as far as ranking the criteria that make people happy at work – good pay, decent hours, promotion prospects and so on.

But, as Dario and Isobel demonstrate, this is not how job satisfaction works at all. It is quite possible to have a dream job and be unhappy, and to be in a crappy job and be ecstatic. There is no science to job satisfaction: different people need different things at different times.

Doubtless there was an occasion when Dario, who joined Ferrari in 1971, was unequivocally delighted with his work. But what he wanted from his job when he was 40 may differ from what he wants as he approaches retirement.

Indeed, the only certainty about professional contentment is that we will feel differently about what we do at different times, depending on infinitely varying criteria such as our mood, how much we are paid, whether we like the person who sits next to us, and how far we are from a holiday, which in my case is not very far at all.

This column returns on December 2.

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