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The Dangers of Ignoring Your Purpose Are Huge and Very Very Real

 Jae Rew/Getty Images
Jae Rew/Getty Images,

by Sarah Mahoney

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It’s easy to be envious of people with a loud-and-clear calling. But new research from the University of South Florida finds that people who don’t follow their purpose are actually worse off than people with no calling at all. Here, the career test we all need to take.

USF psychologist Michele Gazica decided she wanted to study the question of unanswered callings based on her own experience as an unhappy lawyer, as well as the many suffering associates she knew at law firms. “When I decided to change career paths from law to study industrial organizations, I started thinking about the implications of having a calling and not being able to pursue it.”

Those who felt a calling and either couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue it were worse off than those who felt no calling at all.

The study looked at 378 faculty members at 36 public universities in the U.S, with a mean age of 51. They answered questions about age, rank and tenure status, as well as life and job satisfaction, level of engagement in their job, on-the-job stress, and physical health. They also answered questions that assessed whether they had a calling and if that calling fits their current job. As one might expect, people who feel they’ve followed that calling tend to be happier and healthier. But those who felt a calling, which she describes as a pull toward a particular career that feels “central to your identity,” and either couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue it were worse off than those who felt no calling at all.

While this research was confined to academics, her own experience in the legal field suggests it may apply to many fields. “Certainly, there are lawyers who are called to that profession and who flourish. But for many, the joke is that the only reason they went to law school is that they were afraid of blood and couldn't do math.”

In her case, the answer was a career switch, after a difficult period that included a lay-off, “and the realization that I wanted to help lawyers, not be one.” But there are ways to answer your calling without changing fields, she says. “Many are in careers where it’s difficult to switch paths. Some people are able to bring elements of their passion into their work,” she says. “And other people manage to pursue them in their free time.”