Do you feel yourself called to a profession? And–whatever that profession–is it actually what you do? If you answered yes to the first question and no to the second, watch out! You could not only make yourself unhappy, but also risk damaging your health.
That’s the surprising result of recent research by University of South Florida psychologists Michele Gazica and Paul Spector, reported Monday by Pacific Standard. They surveyed 378 academics from across the United States, asking a wide range of questions about their jobs, their satisfaction with those jobs and with their lives, their general happiness, and their physical health. They also asked respondents whether they felt called to a particular occupation, and how closely their current job resembled that occupation.
Given existing research about fulfillment, happiness, and health, it’s probably not surprising that the people who reported working at jobs that aligned with their dreams also reported less psychological distress and fewer physical symptoms than average. Interestingly, those who reported no particular dream job also scored reasonably well on happiness and health. Those who knew what job they would love to do, but were actually doing something completely different suffered the greatest degree of psychological distress and physical symptoms. “Having a calling is a benefit only if it is met, but can be a detriment when it is not as compared to having no calling at all,” the study’s authors write. They add: “An occupational calling provides meaning and employment in a person’s life, and becomes part of his or her integrated sense of self.”
Or, to put it another way, to feel happy and whole, you need to have a sense of purpose. If you feel no pull to any particular profession, then it’s likely your sense of purpose is focused on something else, such as your family, or supporting a cause that you care about. As the study shows, if that’s the case, you’re likely to find fulfillment away from work. A job that feels valuable, is pleasant, and has good pay may be all you need to feel satisfied.
On the other hand, if you feel there’s a dream job out there for you, and you’re working away at something completely different, you will feel like your sense of purpose is thwarted. And that’s not healthy for anyone.
I’ve seen this in my own household. My husband spent many years as a professional musician before being sidelined by illness. As he recovered, he looked for work that was less physically taxing, and found himself working with computers. He loves working with computers and tends to radiate contentment while pulling them apart, tinkering with them, reconfiguring them, and making them function better or in new ways.
But although he enjoys working with technology, the fact remains that music is his calling. And when we relocated to Snohomish, Washington a year ago so that he could perform and record with the community of musicians who live and play around here, both his happiness and his health greatly improved.
If there’s work that you dream of doing and your current profession had nothing to do with that dream, the time to do something about that is now. I realize not everyone can have their dream job, and everyone has to pay their bills. Still, it’s important to find ways to do the work you would love if you possibly can–if only because your health may suffer if you don’t.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
1. What would it take for you to go after your dream job?
Could you apply for the job of your dreams? Or a job that could lead to that job? If your dream is to start a company of your own (you’re on the right website!) what would it take to make that happen?
Perhaps there are really good reasons why you can’t do either of those things. Maybe you have financial or family obligations that make it impossible, or maybe the profession you would love is not available to you right now. But just maybe, you’re letting, inertia, habit, or the desire to stay in your comfort zone hold you back. If that’s the case, consider that you may be paying for that comfort with the chance to be a lot happier and healthier.
2. Can you do your dream job on the side?
So maybe you can’t quit your current job. But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your dream profession. You could follow in the footsteps of countless musicians, actors, and writers who work day jobs and then pursue their real vocations in the evenings and on weekends. In today’s world, where remote work and flextime are becoming the norm, pursuing your dream career part-time while also performing a full-time job that pays your expenses is more doable than ever before.
3. Can you volunteer at your dream job?
No matter what you aspire to do, there’s an organization out there somewhere that needs someone to do it for free. So look around for opportunities to volunteer at the profession you dream of. If it bugs you to give your work away for free, remember the survey results: Doing work you feel called to do will improve your happiness and health. Besides, volunteer work can give you the experience and contacts you need to eventually land paid work in your chose profession.
4. Can others help you toward your dream job?
I never knew my father-in-law, who died before Bill and I met. But Bill has told me how his father (also named Bill) spent an unfulfilled career working for the U.S. Postal Service. What Bill senior really loved to do was tinker and build things–he repaired countless appliances and devices and built decks and additions onto the family home. He even helped many of his neighbors with their own construction projects.
It seems clear he would have been much happier as a self-employed carpenter or repair man but he never took that leap, perhaps because he had a large family to support and little available capital. My husband Bill believes there was another way. Bill senior could have asked some of his wealthier relatives for loans or investments that would have allowed him to establish his own business and pursue the career he’d have loved. Would they have agreed to finance him? We’ll never know because he never asked.
5. Can you bring elements of your dream job to your current job?
If you’re an accountant who dreams of being a matador, this won’t work. But in many cases there may be a way to bring your everyday work and your dreams closer together. Look for opportunities to use and improve the skills of your dream job within your current job or company. If you dream of starting an ad agency, perhaps you can help create promotional material for internal or external use. If you dream of playing music, perhaps you can put together your company’s lunchtime concert series. It will bring you a step closer to being fulfilled. And it will make you happier and healthier at the same time.