The importance of pursuing meaningful work has received a lot of attention in the press in recent years. We want more from work than material benefits; we want our work to be personally rewarding. Meaningful work is that which has a purpose in the broader context of one’s life, and may be done for personal fulfilment or the greater good and is associated with positive health, life, and job-related outcomes.
Do you sometimes think that you missed your true calling in life? If so, it would be a good idea to do something about it, according to research published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour. An unanswered calling leads to poorer life outcomes than having no vocation at all, and may even harm your health.
We know that people who follow an occupational calling have better outcomes than those who don’t. But authors Michele Gazica and Paul Spector of the University of South Florida found those who had a calling that they never pursued were suffering as a result. This was based on Self-Determination Theory, which says that we are motivated to follow paths that lead us to be autonomous and competent within ‘our’ field, but the flipside of that is that we can be left frustrated when we feel we have fallen short.
Working for a fulfilled life
The researchers surveyed a sample of hundreds of participants, who were split into groups based on their responses: those with a higher sense of unanswered calling than the average, those with a higher sense of having answered their calling, and those with no strong sense of either.
Participants provided feedback on a range of measures, and in terms of a fulfilled life-engagement with work, career commitment, and life satisfaction – those who answered a vocation were better off than the no-calling group, who were still better off than those with an unanswered calling; this last group rated themselves as the least fulfilled. Those with an unanswered calling also rated themselves lowest in terms of physical stress symptoms and psychological distress. In health terms, therefore, the research suggests that it isn’t that a vocation helps you so much as that ignoring it hurts you.
The authors of the study confirm that causality can’t be confirmed. In fact, there is reason to think that the perception of having another calling can be a consequence as well as a cause of unhappiness (the worst work period of your life might well be when you cast around for what you were really born to do).
What should you do if you’re hearing the call of a new life and career? A mid-career rethink of the kind of work you want do, as well as who you want to work for, may mean transitioning to entrepreneurship from traditional employment. You can leverage your years of experience in a new entrepreneurial venture, or look for a role in a new field. The first question to ask is ‘What holds meaning for me?
If a new start is not possible, perhaps you can improve your situation by reshaping the job you have to include those aspects that really matter to you, or find a leisure activity that captures your passions.
Traditional career paths are a thing of the past and we change jobs much more often these days, about once every four years, apparently; since most adults spend more than half their waking lives at work it is worth making the right choice. The idea that we have to choose a single career path and stick with it from start to finish is simply no longer true.
For an agile approach to your career it helps if you commit to being a lifelong learner and continue to update your skills and knowledge to stay versatile, entrepreneurial, and competitive.