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Will the Job of Your Dreams Really Make You Happy?

Will the Job of Your Dreams Really Make You Happy?
Credit: KieferPix/Shutterstock

Choosing your career based on what you think your calling is might not bring the level of happiness you anticipate, new research suggests.

A study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal found that depending on why someone chooses a job they feel is their calling can impact whether they end up flourishing in it or burning out and finding a new career.

"None of those we studied had a moderate experience of their calling: They either followed a practice path that produced learning and growth or one of the two other paths that generated intense negative emotions and culminated in burnout and exit from the occupation," the study's authors wrote.

For the study, researchers interviewed 50 current or former workers in animal shelters across North America. The researchers chose animal shelter workers, because those jobs tend to attract people who have a calling for prosocial work and an understanding that with these positions there is often extensive unpaid overtime and few opportunities for advancement. In addition, these jobs present several challenges because of the lack of resources, widespread legal restrictions and the reality that many of the animals in the shelter experience short, unpleasant lives. [See Related Story: Are You Losing Your Employees to Burnout?]

All of those who were interviewed were identified as have a true calling for this line of work because of how they described why they went wanted to work in animal shelters. They all described their chosen career path by using at least three of four characteristics associated with callings: 1) a passion for it; 2) enjoyment of the work; 3) a sense of obligation or moral duty, and; 4) the need to make a prosocial difference.

In the end, the researchers identified three paths that led animal shelter workers to their calling:

Identity-oriented path

These workers had a love of animals and a gift for handling them. They dealt with the difficult and cruel aspects of the job, like euthanization, as personal insults. They would often flip-flop between some of the heart-warming aspects of the job, like heading up the adoption desk, and gut-wrenching tasks, like caring for animals at the end of their lives. The researchers said this path proved unsustainable over time and resulted in burnout.

"Burned out and broken down, those on this path eventually left the shelter to pursue less painful animalcentric occupations [such as pet grooming or training]," the study's authors wrote.

Contribution-oriented path

These professionals had a desire to make a positive impact on the world and believed working in an animal shelter was one way to make that happen. While they didn't experience the initial surprise of the unforgiving workplace environment like those who took the identity-oriented path, these workers were still shocked by shelters' limited resources and what they saw as overly harsh aspects of their operations.

These animal shelter workers sought leadership positions in the hope of bringing change. However, even when they rose to the top, they were unable to impose the type of transformation they wanted, which ultimately lead to burnout and a change of professions.

"They developed new accounts of their purpose and ... sought contexts outside animal welfare (such as nursing, teaching, and pharmacy) to make their contribution," the study authors wrote.

Practice-oriented path

While these workers were passionate about making a difference in the lives of animals, they admitted that they didn't have any special skills for working in this field. Since they had more modest aspirations, they didn't have as much negative emotions when confronted with the challenges that came with working in an animal shelter. 

"Although they later felt the emotional pain of shelter work ... individuals on the practice-oriented path focused on learning the work of animal welfare, gradually increasing their mastery and impact and eventually creating roles with an extended reach into the community," the study's authors wrote.

The researchers believe the study's results provide employers with some framework on how to better support their employees who believe they have a calling for this line of work.

"For example, those on the identity path could be helped to calibrate their expectations for expressing this part of themselves in their work, or access other parts of their identity more easily enacted in the calling context," the study's authors wrote. "Those on the contribution path could be helped to avoid a sense of defeat by receiving a more realistic preview of the work of a calling and its challenges, and hearing how others have successfully negotiated them to have impact."

Additionally, the researchers said those on the practice path should be provided more opportunities to grow. In addition, these individuals should have it recognized that learning and growth not only benefits the individual but the organization as a whole.

"This is especially true when those organizations deliver services that are demanding, emotionally taxing, and poorly rewarded in society – as is true of many callings," the study's authors wrote.

The study was coauthored by Kira Schabram, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and Sally Maitlis, a professor at the University of Oxford.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.