Work complexity and autonomy are the two largest factors in deciding workplace satisfaction, suggested findings reported in a 1985 article in The New York Times.

The findings came from research by Dr. Jeylan T. Mortimer and Dr. Melvin L. Kohn and seems to agree with a more recent discussion on the three keys to programmer workplace satisfaction (autonomy, mastery, purpose).

The most important determinant of job satisfaction is ‘work autonomy,’ or the degree to which employees feel they can make their own decisions and influence what happens on the job.

[The researcher] also found, in sharp contrast to most previous research, that income had no significant independent effect on job satisfaction. People earning high incomes typically enjoy the most autonomy on the job […] which tends to make them happy. But if one looks at individuals who have equally autonomous jobs […] then they appear equally happy with those jobs, regardless of any income disparities among them.

Another interesting finding discussed in this article is how “the social position and job conditions” of your job influence the value systems of your children:

If the parents have jobs that allow self-direction […] then they and their children are likely to value such traits as dependabilty, curiosity and responsibility. But if the parents have a job that requires conformity to supervision, he added, then they and their children tend to value such traits as obedience, neatness and cleanliness.

Update: The current (01 July 2010) most highlighted passage on the Amazon Kindle is this, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:

Three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.