Job, Career or Calling?

Most people spend a large part of their life at work. How can this significant investment of our endeavor contribute to our happiness? Seligman (2002) suggested that individuals can see their work as a job, a career or a calling and that which of these conceptualisations you adopt influences your happiness and well-being. Viewing work as a job means you feel it’s simply a means to an end. It provides you the money to keep a roof over your head and feed your family. A career is seen as a job with organisational progression where, above your financial needs, you also find a means to progress and gain status and advancement in terms of knowledge, skills, achievements and usually money too. Generally speaking a career is what your parents want you to have (or what they think they want you to have!) and what most of western society strives to pursue. A calling however, means you view your work as connected to a wider sense of purpose and/or meaning. Construing your work as a calling is associated with greater engagement and organisational commitment as well as a sense of greater fulfillment and improved well-being.

But not everyone can be a brain surgeon

Not everyone can be a brain surgeon I hear you say? Well, no of course not. We have this idea of people who have these wonderful, meaningful callings as few and far between and out of reach for us mere mortals. Not so, this is a misconception. Finding meaning in your work and connecting with a purpose greater than the extrinsic outcomes of the work is about individual perspective. It is available to us all in how we think about our work, make sense of it in the context of our lives and enact our values and aspirations. That is how we make our job a calling.

I know a woman who I believe has a calling. She’s not a vicar, a nurse or a human rights lawyer, she’s a waitress. She works in the pub in the centre of a small Hampshire town, taking orders, serving food and drinks and clearing tables. She’s done the same job for years and I would be amazed if she was earned more than minimum wage. Her job is as a waitress, I don’t think there’s much chance of career progression. However, her calling is something else, I’d like to call her town happiness ambassador. She approaches her job with a smile, a zest to serve and to make people’s day better. Over the years I have seen her cope with noisy children and distraught parents better than most teachers, manage people with learning difficulties as well as any therapist and show more compassion to the elderly and infirm than many carers. She makes people’s lives better in the way she does her work and although I’m pretty sure her life isn’t easy, she has a sense of well-being about her. We can all learn something from her.

Values and perspective

So how do you turn a job you tolerate into a calling? Well, perhaps you can’t always, sometimes you need to change what you do. But even in an unsatisfactory job you can ask yourself, why do I do this? How does it fit in with my values and goals? A change of perspective can help. Even if you are only working to keep your family fed, isn’t that an honorable thing? Caring for family is a top priority for many people, an important value but often not endorsed by our competitive society. I’m certainly guilty in the past of saying “Oh I’m just a mum”, as though being a mother has no value because it doesn’t have a salary.

Try to work out what’s important to you and find a way to enact that in your daily life, hopefully in a way that someone will pay you for. Finding meaning in our lives in this way is fundamental to well-being. Maybe the money you earn in your work allows you to pursue outside interests or causes of value to you and this gives you meaning

How can I do my job better is another good question? A sense of achievement is also important to well-being, feeling you are doing your job as well as you can will always make you feel better than doing it badly.

Do I need to find something different to do?, is also a valid question. Simply recognising you want to change your work and making a plan to do so can help you feel better as it increases your sense of control and mastery, which again promote well-being.

Knowing and using your strengths

Most people shy away from the idea that they have strengths let alone know what they are. Being able to use your strengths in your work has been found to promote well-being and improved performance at an individual and company level. So find out what your strengths are and think about how you can use them more in your work (and at home too). Perhaps your strengths don’t really fit your job and you need to do something else. I suspect my waitress friend has high strengths of love, kindness and social intelligence, honesty, gratitude, humour and zest and these make her a great happiness ambassador. Different types of work may be better suited to different strengths profiles but you can probably find ways to use and develop your own strengths whatever work you do. To find out more about your strengths visit There’s a free survey you can take. Alternatively ask your friends, family and colleagues to help you identify your strengths.

Work is too big a part of most people’s lives to be just a job, transform it into a calling and reap the benefits.

Seligman, M.E.P.  (2002) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. New York: The Free Press.


About the author: Sarah Monk

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