Follow your heart – Having an unanswered calling in life is worse than having no calling at all

As you return to work after the holidays, do you have a sense that this isn’t the place you’re meant to be; that somewhere out there is a calling as yet unanswered? If so, you better do something about it, according to new research published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour. Having an unanswered calling leads to poorer life outcomes than having no calling at all, and it could even harm your health.

We already know that people who follow an occupational calling have better life outcomes than those who don’t. But the study authors Michele Gazica and Paul Spector of the University of South Florida observed that past work doesn’t distinguish between people who never had any inkling of a calling, and those who had one that they never pursued. The researchers theorised that the latter group would have a worse experience – in effect, suffering thanks to having a calling that they were unable to fulfil. Their prediction was based on Self-Determination Theory, which states that we are motivated to follow paths that lead us to be autonomous and competent within “our” field, but that the flipside is that we can be left frustrated when we know we have fallen short.

The researchers investigated this with a university faculty sample of hundreds of participants, who were split into groups based on survey 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 gave their feedback on a range of outcome measures, and in terms of a life fulfilled – work engagement, career commitment, and life satisfaction – those who answered their calling were better off than the no-calling group, who were still better off than the unanswered calling group, who rated themselves as the least fulfilled. The unanswered group also had the worst ratings in terms of physical stress symptoms and psychological distress, with the answered and no-calling groups scoring higher in a similar fashion. For health, therefore, the data suggests that it isn’t that callings help you, so much that ignoring a calling hurts you.

Note that as a cross-sectional study, 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). This means that longitudinal research would be a welcome next step.

What to do if you’re hearing the call yourself? Well, the New Year can be a spur for a new start. If that’s not possible, others in your situation have redressed things by reshaping their job to include the aspects that really matter to them, or finding a leisure activity that captures their passions. You may need to answer that call, but the way you answer it is up to you.


Gazica, M., & Spector, P. (2015). A comparison of individuals with unanswered callings to those with no calling at all Journal of Vocational Behavior, 91, 1-10 DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2015.08.008

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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