The Cost of Not Pursuing Your Dream Job

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This job is killing me.” You may have found yourself uttering those words after a long day at work, and it turns out you might be right, especially if your current career doesn’t line up with what you believe to be your true calling.

Not pursuing your dream job comes with some serious health side effects, according to the results of a new study by Michele Gazica and Paul Spector, both psychologists at the University of South Florida. People who believe they had a calling but weren’t currently pursuing it were worse off both mentally and physically when compared to people whose jobs matched their calling or who didn’t think they had a calling at all.

“Our results suggest that those fortunate enough to live out their occupational callings tend to report higher levels of positive life-, job-, and health-related outcomes than those who have no calling or are experiencing an unanswered calling,” the authors wrote in an article published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. But having a calling is only a positive if it’s met. For those stuck in ill-fitting jobs, having a calling is actually a detriment.

To study the interplay between calling and health, the pair surveyed 378 academics working at 36 public universities across the United States about their job satisfaction, level of engagement at work, life satisfaction, physical ailments, psychological distress, and other factors. They defined an occupational calling as one “that a person feels drawn to, finds intrinsically enjoyable and meaningful, and identifies as a central part of his or her identity.”

The study’s results are a wake-up call for all those wannabe filmmakers, frustrated entrepreneurs, and aspiring lawyers stuck in careers they don’t like. While the researchers didn’t look at how not being able to follow your occupational calling might affect your health over the long-term, the findings do point to some pretty negative short-term consequences of staying in job you know isn’t quite right for you.

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Fortunately, the researchers had some suggestions for those with a career-calling mismatch. Making an effort to pursue your true calling is one obvious way to fix the problem, they note. If you’ve realized you were really meant to be a teacher but are working as an insurance salesman, you can take concrete steps to train for a new career and land a job better suited to your goals.

But what if a career switch isn’t an option? Gazica and Spector acknowledge that not everyone has the time, talent, or financial means to pursue their dream job. In those cases, focusing on your calling outside of work might help. A would-be novelist can write on the weekends, or someone who wants to help others can pursue volunteer work. Finding a way to incorporate aspects of your calling into your current work might also balance some of the negative effects of having a job that’s not a perfect fit.

In the meantime, you shouldn’t panic if your dream job is still just that. A study at the University of Michigan found people can cultivate excitement for their work over time, with those who prioritized factors like pay over passion when choosing a job ending up just as happy in the end. The idea of gradually growing to love your job might not be very comforting if your current career is truly at odds with your sense of who you are, but it might make things easier to bear as you try to find your way forward.

“Being on your path towards finding your ideal career doesn’t mean you’re gonna love it at entry level or at every point along the way,” career coach Maggie Mistal told Fast Company. “I think it’s gotten screwed up so that people think, ‘If I have permission to follow my passion, I have to love my first job.’ Who said that?”

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