How To Find Your Calling, According to Psychology

GettyImages-905882552.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Look. You can’t plan out your life. What you have to do is first discover your passion—what you really care about.” Barack Obama, as quoted by David Gergen (cited in Jachimowicz et al, 2018).

Last Saturday, the first of two BPS career events took place – “perfect for anyone looking to discover where psychology can take them in their chosen career.” A second follows in London on Dec 4. If, like many, you are searching for your calling in life – perhaps you are still unsure whether psychology is for you, or which area of the profession aligns with what you most care about – here are five digested research findings worth taking into consideration:

There’s a difference between having a harmonious passion and an obsessive passion
If you can find a career path or occupational goal that fires you up, you are more likely to succeed and find happiness through your work – that much we know from a deep research literature. But beware – since a seminal paper published in 2003 by the Canadian psychologist Robert Vallerand and his colleagues, researchers have made an important distinction between having a harmonious passion and an obsessive one. If you feel that your passion or calling is out of control, and that your mood and self-esteem depend on it, then this is the obsessive variety, and such passions, while they are energising, are also associated with negative outcomes like burnout and anxiety. In contrast, if your passion feels in control, reflects qualities that you like about yourself, and complements other important activities in your life, then this is the harmonious version, which is associated with positive outcomes, such as vitality, better work performance, experiencing flow, and positive mood.

Having an unanswered calling in life is worse than having no calling at all
If you already have a burning ambition or purpose, do not leave it to languish. A few years ago, researchers at the University of South Florida surveyed hundreds of people and grouped them according to whether they felt like they had no calling in life, that they had a calling they’d answered, or they had a calling but had never done anything about it. In terms of their work engagement, career commitment, life satisfaction, health and stress, the stand-out finding was that the participants who had a calling they hadn’t answered scored the worst across all these measures. The researchers said this puts a different spin on the presumed benefits of having a calling in life. They concluded: “having a calling is only a benefit if it is met, but can be a detriment when it is not as compared to having no calling at all.”

Without passion, grit is “merely a grind”
All this talk of finding a passion, but you may also have heard that “grit” is vital for career success. As advanced most famously by psychologist Angela Duckworth, this is the idea that highly successful, gritty people have impressive persistence: “To be gritty,” Duckworth writes in her landmark book on the subject, “is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.” It’s certainly true (many studies show) that being more conscientious – more self-disciplined and industrious – is associated with more career success. But is that all that being gritty means? Duckworth has always emphasised that it has another vital component that brings us back to passion again – alongside persistence, she says that gritty people also have an “ultimate concern” (another way of describing having a passion or calling). According to a paper published earlier this year, however, the standard measure of grit has failed to assess passion (or more specifically, “passion attainment”) – and Jon Jachimowicz and his colleagues believe this could explain why the research on grit has been so inconsistent (leading to claims that it is an overhyped concept and simply conscientiousness repackaged). Jachimowicz’s team found that when they explicitly measured passion attainment (how much people feel they have adequate passion for their work) and combined this with a measure of perseverance (a consistency of interests and the ability to overcome setbacks), then the two together did predict superior performance among tech company employees and university students. “Our findings suggest that perseverance without passion attainment is mere drudgery, but perseverance with passion attainment propels individuals forward,” they said.

Invest enough effort and you may find that your work becomes your passion
It’s all very well reading about the benefits of having a passion or calling in life, but if you haven’t got one, where to find it? Duckworth says that it’s a mistake to think that in a moment of revelation one will land in your lap, or simply occur to you through quiet contemplation – rather you need to explore different activities and pursuits, and expose yourself the different challenges and needs confronting society. If you still draw a blank, then perhaps it’s worth heeding the advice of others who say that it is not always the case that energy and determination flow from finding your passion – sometimes it can be the other way around, and if you put enough energy into your work, then passion will follow. Consider, for instance, an eight-week repeated survey of German entrepreneurs published a few years ago that found a clear pattern – their passion for their ventures increased after they had invested more effort into the ventures the week before. A follow-up study qualified this, suggesting the energising effect of investing effort only arises when the project is freely chosen and there is a sense of progress. “Entrepreneurs increase their passion when they make significant progress in their venture and when they invest effort out of their own free choice,” the researchers said.

If you think passion comes from doing a job you enjoy, you’re likely to be disappointed
Another issue to consider is where you think passion comes from. In a paper released as a preprint at PsyArXiv, Jon Jachimowicz and his team draw a distinction between people who believe that passion comes from doing what you enjoy (which they say is encapsulated by Oprah Winfrey’s commencement address in which she said passion “will bloom when we’re doing what we love”), and those who see it as arising from doing what you believe in or value in life (as reflected in the words of former Mexican President Felipe Calderón who in his own commencement address in 2011 said “you have to embrace with passion the things that you believe in, and that you are fighting for”). The researchers found that people believing that passion comes from pleasurable work were less likely to feel like they had found their passion (and were more likely to desire leaving their job) as compared with people who believe that passion comes from doing what you feel matters. Perhaps this is because there is a superficiality and ephemerality to working for sheer pleasure – what fits the bill one month or year may not do so for long – whereas working towards what you care about is a timeless endeavour that is likely to stretch and sustain you indefinitely. The researchers said their results showed: “the extent to which individuals attain their desired level of work passion may have less to do with their actual jobs and more to do with their beliefs about how work passion is pursued.”

If you believe psychology might be your calling, the British Psychological Society is holding two careers events this weekend and next month. Both are open to members (at a discount) and non-members.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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