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 Continue reading