Those of us who feel we have a calling—that is to say, we have discovered a line of work we find uniquely fulfilling—consider ourselves fortunate. And we are. Considerable research has linked this sense of purpose with elevated well-being.
But a recently published study suggests this sense of mission can also be a burden. It finds people who have identified a profession that is particularly meaningful to them, but are unable or unwilling to pursue it, report relatively poor physical and psychological health.
University of South Florida psychologists Michele Gazica and Paul Spector find such people are less healthy compared to peers who are following their bliss, as well as those who neither get nor expect exceptional fulfillment from their job.
"Having a calling is a benefit only if it is met."
"Those who have no occupational calling at all are better off than those experiencing an unanswered calling," they write in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.
The researchers conducted an online survey of 378 faculty members from 36 public universities across the United States. (The mean age of participants was 51.) They noted their age, rank, and tenure status, and filled out a series of surveys designed to measure—among other things—life satisfaction, job satisfaction, level of engagement in their job, work-related psychological distress, and physical symptoms.
Participants also answered questions designed to measure the extent to which they feel an occupational calling, and the degree to which their current job fits that description.
Gazica and Spector found people whose jobs align with their callings "tend to report higher levels of positive life, job, and health-related outcomes than those who have no calling, or are experiencing an unanswered calling."
Surprisingly, they found the lowest scores on such indicators tended to come from people who felt a calling, but reported their current job did not match it.
To put it another way: Those who do not feel called to any particular vocation reported fewer physical symptoms, less psychological distress, and higher levels of work engagement than those who felt a calling, but were not pursuing it.
"An occupational calling provides meaning and employment in a person's life, and becomes part of his or her integrated sense of self," the researchers write. This suggests their work satisfies their basic psychological needs as defined by self-determination theory: a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness (feeling effective and in control, and enjoying close connections with others).
Those who feel an unmet calling apparently have difficulty meeting those fundamental requirements, while those who don't expect much from their job beyond a paycheck "may satisfy those needs elsewhere," the researchers write.
Of course, this is a survey of academics, not the general public; they may be more likely to feel a sense of mission than your average assembly-line worker. But, as these results suggest, that's not always a good thing.
As Gazica and Spector succinctly put it: "Having a calling is a benefit only if it is met."
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.