What Drives Your Happiness With Work?

Is your work satisfaction related to your fit to your job?

Posted Oct 09, 2015

Cube Farm" by Dan4th Nicholas from Cambridge, MA, USA - cube farmUploaded by GrapedApe. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Cube Farm" by Dan4th Nicholas from Cambridge, MA, USA - cube farmUploaded by GrapedApe. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a college student, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my work life would be like.  I watched the adults in my life and saw that not everyone loved the work they did.  Many of them were glad that they could provide for their families, but did not head to work in the morning excited to do their jobs.  That experience led me to really want to love the work I do.  And, I have been lucky enough to work in a profession I deeply enjoy.

This sentiment that passion and enthusiasm for work is important has become embedded in our culture.  Most people I talk to are seeking work that is meaningful to them.  The idea that work should be a calling is discussed in a variety of business publications.

But, how do we find work that is meaningful?

A fascinating paper by Patricia Chen, Phoebe Ellsworth, and Norbert Schwarz in the October, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin points out that there are two ways that people might find meaningful work. 

One possibility is that love of work is a matter of the fit between work and your personality.  On this view, people have to seek opportunities to do things they love to do.  A second possibility is that you can come to love almost any kind of work, but you have to develop that passion over time.  They called these viewpoints the Fit and Develop views of work passion. 

The researchers began by developing a scale to measure people’s existing beliefs about the fit and develop views of work.  This study focused on American participants, and found that the majority believed in the Fit view. 

These two perspectives influenced people’s expectations about work as well as their actual work lives.  In one study, participants were asked whether they would prefer to take a job that was more enjoyable or paid less or one that was less enjoyable and paid more.  People with a Fit view were more likely to say that they preferred a more enjoyable job that less money than those who had a Develop view.  Presumably, the people with a Develop view believed they would come to love their job over time.

Another study surveyed adults who had been working for a while.  These adults filled out the Fit/Develop scale.  They also rated whether it was more important for them to have a job that was enjoyable or paid well.  It asked how well their job fit them when they first started as well as how well it fit them at the time of the study.  Participants asked about how happy and satisfied they were with their work and also how successful they thought they were at work.

As in the other studies, most participants had a Fit view of work.  Participants with a Fit view prioritized having work they enjoyed, while those with a Develop view prioritized having a job for which they were paid well. 

Interestingly, at the time of the study, people with both a Fit and a Develop View felt their job fit them about equally well.  The big difference is that people with a Develop view were more willing than those with a Fit view to select jobs that did not fit them early on. 

Another difference between these groups involved the relationship between people’s passion for their work and their perception of how well their job fit them.  Those people who felt that Fit was fixed had a strong relationship between the fit of their job and their passion.  If the job did not fit them, they were not passionate about it.  Those who felt that their passion for their work could develop, though, were still somewhat passionate about work even when it did not fit them well at that moment.  This may reflect that people with a Develop view work hard at a job that does not fit them at that moment in the hope that the job will eventually come to fit them.

The measures of satisfaction with work and success did not differ between groups.  One explanation for the similarity of the two groups is that there are many ways to find satisfying work and to succeed.  If you believe that passion is based on fit, then youkeep looking for jobs until you find one that fits.  If you believe that passion is developed, then you work hard at the job until you come to love it.  Either path can lead to satisfaction and success.

There is clearly a lot more work to be done on this issue.  As the researchers point out, all of the studies in this paper are correlational.  It would be interesting to manipulate people’s beliefs about work and see how that influences the way people pursue their jobs.  In addition, it would be interesting to explore this issue in populations of individuals who have little choice about the jobs they take on.  It may be that the Fit view works for this sample, because it has some flexibility to change jobs.  Some segments of the population (notably those with lower levels of education) and populations in other regions of the world may have less flexibility to change jobs just because they are a bad fit.

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