Would you describe what you do as a job, a career or a calling? I guess many might say that… “it’s all about the paycheck!!”, and may go on to say, “….if only I had the luxury to think about what I do as anything other than just a job.” For many people, finding a job, any job, that will pay the bills is all they are after. Some might see what they do as a part of a career. One stage in a long-term plan. For these people, while the paycheck is clearly important, it is not the only motivation for them doing what they do. Promotion, status, power, amongst other expectations, also serve to drive people’s ambitions. So, what is a calling? It is tempting to think about ‘a calling’ in spiritual terms, perhaps conjuring images of people who devote their life to serving God, or perhaps a scientist, who believes passionately in a particular theory, and commits her life to proving its validity.
Experiencing what you do as ‘a calling’ need not be so extreme however. Martin Seligman in his superb book, “Authentic Happiness” (2003), examines the scientific evidence pertaining to this area, and the conditions necessary to create meaningful and fulfilled lives regardless of the type of work one does. One of the key studies discussed in Seligman’s book relates to hospital cleaners. Some within the group describe their ‘job’ simply as ‘cleaning up rooms’, while others defined the work more in terms of a ‘calling’ by making it meaningful. They viewed what they do as “critical in helping patients to heal”, they time their work to be maximally efficient, and try to anticipate the needs of doctors and nurses to allow them to spend more time with the patients. In extreme cases, some even ‘added tasks’ to what was expected of them, for example, by brightening up patients’ rooms with cheerful pictures and prints.
Living a ‘meaningful life’ is one of the core pillars underpinning Positive Psychology and which is closely linked to happiness and mental health. Despite real income in the western world having risen dramatically (at least in the most prosperous nations) in the last 50 years or so, wealth has a low correlation with happiness. So too does job promotion or good job prospects. Physical attractiveness and physical health also fail to pass any positive correlation test. Other ‘seemingly happy’ factors such as age (youth), education level and climate also fail to predict greater happiness or sense of well-being.So, what is the secret? The answer is not simple (if only it were!), but the concept of Flow (I recommend the excellent and seminal work on this topic by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) provides an excellent model to help us start to understand the conditions necessary to achieve a meaningful life. When people describe experiencing ‘flow’, they report total absorption in the task at hand, a feeling akin to a suspension of consciousness. It feels like time has stopped. Many of us have experienced this extreme state at some point in our lives. It could be while playing tennis, listening to classical music or speaking before a group on a subject that you are passionate about. Csikszentmihalyi, from his extensive study of thousands of people’s experiences, states that for flow to be felt, the task or activity must be sufficiently challenging to stretch the person’s current level of ability, but not so much that it results in anxiety and stress. Nor should the level of challenge be too low, such that the ability level is not stretched, lest boredom and lack of engagement will set in. The important thing about this model, is that flow can be experienced in virtually any activity, or job, and regardless of people’s ability or competence level. In a ‘flow’ study of teenagers, clear evidence was found that high-flow ‘kids’ (i.e. regularly engaged in hobbies, sports, homework, watched less TV, hung around malls less etc.) outscored low-flow ‘kids’ on virtually every measure of psychological well-being.
So, how does this fit with work (whether job, career or calling)? Well, it so happens that work is one of the main situations in people’s lives where the conditions for ‘flow’ are possible. Seligman states that, “…..unlike leisure, it (work) builds many of the conditions of flow into itself. There are usually clear goals….rules of performance…..frequent feedback. Work often encourages concentration….minimises distractions….and, in many cases, matches difficulties to your talents and even your strengths. As a result, people often feel more engaged at work than they do at home.”
If you know what Flow feels like, and you would like to share some of your secrets with others, please do comment on this post. If you want some of this, and want to turn your job into a ‘calling’, and don’t know how to start making it happen, then Seligman provides some useful guidance.
- Identify your signature strengths (*)
- Choose work and/or engage in activity that lets you use them every day
- Recraft your present work to use your signature strengths more (……are you REALLY sure you can’t?)
- If you employ people – choose employees whose signature strengths mesh with the work they will do.
* You can use this link to access a self-test to identify your signature strengths. Sign up and complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.
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