Several years ago, I spent a cocktail hour with a few young Notre Dame finance graduates and some of their colleagues in a lower Manhattan watering hole frequented by investment banking analysts, traders and portfolio managers. The market was improving that afternoon, evident from their swagger and good humor. These were young men accustomed to long hours and demanding bosses.

After a couple of drinks, the conversation turned to the subject of their “number.” I was assured that every ambitious investment banker south of Canal Street had one.

As they went around the table, each offered a remarkably precise figure, some of them quite large. “Six point five,” said one. “Ten even,” said another. “Fifteen,” offered a third. The least ambitious (or perhaps most realistic) among them said, “Just one. That’s all I need.” Those figures were all in millions of U.S. dollars.

illustration: James Yang

An outsider to the financial services and investment banking community, I had to ask: “What do you mean by ‘your number’?” One recent grad turned to me and said, “Those are walk-away numbers. The amount of money you think you’d need to simply get up from your desk and walk away. No conversation with your managing director; just leave.” “And do what?” I asked. “Something else,” he said. “Anything other than this.”

The plan, as nearly as I could understand it, was this: These young people are working 75-hour weeks in a very competitive, high-stress environment, hoping to earn enough money to quit. Clearly, few among these amiable, intelligent young men were having much fun. For the moment, they “love” New York, enjoy their friends and (most of) their colleagues, and try to sustain some semblance of a social life. But none of them planned to do this for very long, certainly not as an entire career. A quick look around the trading floors at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley seemed to confirm their ambitions: Very few people are over age 50.

A close friend who owned a tier-one manufacturing enterprise in the auto industry sold his business some years ago after the stress of commodity prices, narrowing margins and a horrific industrial accident in one of his plants had taken their toll. He was a conscientious, honest, hard-working executive who’d had enough.

After arranging the sale of his company to a group of his own employees (and helping them to secure the financing), he had an exquisite 48-foot, top-of-the-line sailboat built for him. The plan was simple: travel light, sail the world, go where the trade winds take you. After three months at sea, his wife declared she wanted off the boat, bought an air ticket home and filed for divorce.

Contemplating the error in his plans for a low-stress retirement, my friend concluded that this wasn’t what he wanted after all. Back home, chagrined, newly single and without a sailboat, he did the only thing he knew: He opened a start-up and began running a new business, determined to make it productive, innovative and fun for those who would agree to work for him. A few conversations with his new employees revealed that he may finally be on the right track. They all seemed to like each other and the work they were doing, each was excited about the potential for the company’s products and services to transform the way business is done, and they enjoyed getting up in the morning.

In response to these cautionary tales, we are left to ask: Is it even possible to have fun at work, and, if so, how do we do that?

First things first. Most of us work in order to earn a living, to provide shelter, food, clothing, a high-speed Internet connection — all of life’s basic needs. The income required to satisfy basic needs is seen by psychologists as an extrinsic reward for our work. The satisfaction that comes from a job well done, on the other hand, is thought of as an intrinsic reward.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why people work — even those with more money than they require — nor does it explain whether it’s possible to have fun doing so. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, sponsored and funded by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and conducted by economists from MIT, the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University, studied monetary compensation for performance on a series of tasks.

The study produced a couple of interesting findings. First, as long as the task involved only mechanical skills, bonuses worked as expected. The greater the incentive, the better the performance. The lower the incentive, the poorer the performance. That makes sense. If there are routine rules to follow to complete the work, financial rewards are superior motivators.

However, as career analyst has Dan Pink pointed out, the study also found that if the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skills, a larger reward led to lower performance. When a task gets more complicated, requiring some conceptual, creative thinking, financial incentives above a certain level just don’t work.

The reason for this seemingly counter-intuitive finding is what’s known as the “Deci effect.” Psychologist Edward Deci contends that tangible rewards undermine motivation for inherently interesting tasks. If a task or job has some sort of intrinsic reward, that should be enough to get most people involved.

Here’s what we know: If you don’t pay people enough, they won’t be motivated. If you pay people enough to take money off the table as a reward system, they begin to think about the work itself. They worry less about making ends meet and think more about the engaging nature of the job they’ve been given.

Beyond that, psychologists and economists have discovered that three factors affect how well people perform: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

As Pink explained in a 2009 talk:

Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed. The problem in most businesses is that the ownership wants the enterprise to be managed, while the workers do not. If what you want is compliance, traditional notions of management are fine. On the other hand, if you want engagement from employees because the activities are more sophisticated and complex, then self-directed is better.

Mastery is our desire to get better at the things we do. It’s a desire for improvement. People will often do sophisticated and complicated things for free in order to develop mastery of a skill or domain. Think about volunteers and people who work pro bono. Why do people do this? Mostly because it’s fun.

Purpose gives people a reason to work, and more and more organizations are adopting some sort of transcendent purpose to attract top talent and get them to contribute even more. Unfortunately, when the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen. People begin seeking money for its own sake and abandon any sense of purpose that may have driven them to the work in the first place. Companies animated by purpose, on the other hand, tend to flourish.

Here’s a case in point: The idea of purpose and values is getting a lot of attention today with millennials; it really seems quite important to them. A recent study by Bob Moritz of the U.S. professional services firm PwC found that millennials emphasize finding satisfaction in their jobs and are willing to be vocal about what they want in a career and a company. For example, they demand to know the organization’s purpose, and they are prepared to leave the firm if that purpose doesn’t align with their own values.

Moritz, who is U.S. chairman and senior partner of the firm, said, “When I was coming up, we knew what we were doing, but we didn’t ask why we were doing it. We didn’t give much thought to our role in society.”

We have to get past the idea of carrots and sticks, and think more about how people respond to their own motives. Raises, benefits and stock shares work, but only in a limited way and to limited ends. Give people a chance to be autonomous (or self-directed), to master a worthwhile set of skills or to serve a greater purpose in their work, and they’ll perform far better.

But all of that still doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s possible to have fun at work.

“Life is a continuum,” says Bob Bretz, a Notre Dame professor of management. “It ranges from work on one end to fun at the other. If we have to do something, then it’s work rather than fun.” He uses the word autotelic to describe experiences that are inherently fun. “The experience is its own reward,” he says. “Take kissing, for example. People don’t ordinarily do that because they’re required to. They do it because it’s rewarding, thrilling . . . fun.”

It’s clear that if we make somebody do something, it’s no longer fun. It’s work. When you are free to do something, the potential for the so-called Sawyer Effect is high. Psychologist Daniel Pink describes that as “practices that can either turn play into work or work into play,” after Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who tricked his friends into painting a fence for him by convincing them it would be fun.

Satisfaction at work is directly related to life satisfaction. If you are happy with your life but hate your work, there’s something wrong with the job. When you’re unhappy with life, it’s difficult to interpret your reaction to work, largely because work is such a big part of our daily lives.

A number of other factors, though, come into play in determining whether we enjoy what we do for a living. Self-selection is a process by which we each choose a company, organization or occupation that most closely fits our own needs and interests. The closer the fit, the happier we tend to be. I tell each of my students (sometimes repeatedly) that you have to find the right cultural fit when you interview for a job; you have to find a company whose values parallel your own. “They will not change their values to suit you,” I say. “And changing your values to please them will be painful. Get on the right horse to begin with.”

“In many ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Mike Crant, a Notre Dame professor of management. “If you think you’ve found the perfect job, you’re more likely to be happy and succeed. If you’re in a bad situation, you can change your circumstance. Reactive people remain miserable; proactive people change unpleasant circumstances.”

Crant’s research has shown that proactive people identify opportunities and act on them. They also are able to anticipate future problems and take corrective action. “Do you wait for change to happen, or do you create the change you most want to see?”

So, back to the unanswered question of “fun” at work. About five years ago, Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that $75,000 a year was the point at which people felt their lives were going well. “High incomes don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life you think is better,” they say.

While that figure can be slightly higher or lower depending on where you live, it does represent an amount at which people are generally no longer worried about the basics in life and can begin seeking autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work.

“Fun is one of many things that predicts job satisfaction,” says Crant. “That’s one piece. The others include co-worker and boss relationships, challenging work each day and, to a limited extent, money.” But is it possible to have fun while earning a living? “Oh, yeah,” Crant replies. “It’s not only possible, I see it as a requirement, really, for a successful life. People who have fun at their chosen occupations perform better, exhibit less absenteeism, tardiness, dependence on alcohol and simply have fewer problems.”

Of course, not everyone finds the same sort of activities to be fun. “I take great satisfaction,” a colleague in accounting told me, “in producing a comprehensive, error-free audit that is of value to senior management.” A friend in marketing said, “Shoot me now. I can’t even read an audit without wincing.” The reason we each find different forms of work fun (or not) is a function of the principle of individual differences. We share common DNA among the human race, but we’re not the same sort of people. Vive la difference.

Most behavioral psychologists have found, both in controlled studies and in workplace ethnography, that people who have tried hard to match their own avocational needs, interests and sources of satisfaction with a job that pays them enough to live a life with few worries are some of the happiest people on the planet.

My own observations in a lifetime of preparing young men and women to begin independent, self-reliant lives of their own tell me that the world you make for yourself will be far easier to live in than a world created for you by someone else. People who are accountable for their own decisions and who take charge of preparations for what’s to come next tend to exhibit much higher levels of satisfaction with work and life. Fun, it seems, is what you make of it.

James O’Rourke is a professor of management at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.