Even in today’s challenging economy, there’s a growing trend among mid-career professionals and recent college grads to seek greater meaning in their work, and many people are beginning rewarding careers in retirement.

We’re seeing a resurgence of the Renaissance concept of vocation, when people believed they were  given a unique set of gifts to make their own personal contribution to the world. To a great extent, this belief in vocation inspired the Renaissance, as generations of men and women used their gifts to make unprecedented creative contributions to science, philosophy, politics, and the arts.

Living with a sense of vocation means loving what we do, finding greater joy and meaning in our lives. It parallels the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood”—when our work affirms our deepest values.

Living our vocation is energizing and empowering. Yet there are roadblocks on the path. Some of these are external, for any change brings unforeseen challenges. Others are internal: reaching out to face the unknown brings up our fears and insecurities. Still other roadblocks are interpersonal. Some people in our lives, even those we love, are threatened by our efforts to live our dreams. As I’ve written in   Tom Plante’s new book, Religion, Spirituality, and Positive Psychology, during the Renaissance, Michelangelo’s father insisted that his son become a successful cloth merchant to bring money into the family and he’d beat the boy whenever he caught him drawing. Such short-sighted parental behavior still continues today. I’ve seen too many college students unhappily pursue majors chosen by their parents when their hearts called them in other directions. Author Paolo Coelho’s parents insisted that he pursue a career in law. When he wanted to become a writer, they had him committed to a mental institution. Years later, after dropping out of law school, he chose his own path, writing his best-selling novel, The Alchemist--about a boy finding his vocation (Dreher, 2008, 2012).

As Abraham Maslow wrote, when we follow our inner nature, “we grow healthy, fruitful, and happy” and we become ill “if this essential core of the person is denied or suppressed” (1962, p.3). Research in positive psychology has shown that when we live with a sense of vocation, we are happier, healthier, and more successful (Wrzesniewski et al, 1997; Schueller & Seligman, 2010).

You, too, can live with greater joy and vitality, whatever your stage in life, cultivating a greater sense of vocation each day by:

  • Asking yourself what brings you joy and meaning.
  • Choosing one small step, one way you can follow your passion.


Dreher, D. E. (2008). Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling. New York, NY: Da Capo. (This book offers an extensive discussion of vocation in the Renaissance and today).

Dreher, D. E. (2012). Vocation: Finding joy and meaning in our work. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). Religion, Spirituality, and Positive Psychology: Understanding the Psychological Fruits of Faith (pp. 127-142). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. (Selection adapted from pp. 135-136).

Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: D. Van Nostrand and Company, Inc.

Schueller, S. M., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2010). Pursuit of pleasure, engagement, and meaning: Relationship to subjective and objective measures of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 253-263.

Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book, about living with greater power and purpose, is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.


Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter

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