People underestimate the impact of their career on their overall wellbeing

by Tom Rath and James K. Harter, Ph.D.Adapted from Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements (Gallup Press)

Do you like what you do each day?

This might be the most basic, yet important, wellbeing question we can ask ourselves. Yet only 20% of people can give a strong “yes” in response.

At a fundamental level, we all need something to do, and ideally something to look forward to, when we wake up every day. What you spend your time doing each day shapes your identity, whether you are a student, parent, volunteer, retiree, or have a more conventional job.

We spend the majority of our waking hours during the week doing something we consider a career, occupation, vocation, or job. When people first meet, they ask each other, “What do you do?” If your answer to that question is something you find fulfilling and meaningful, you are likely thriving in Career Wellbeing.

Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements

People usually underestimate the influence of their career on their overall wellbeing. But Career Wellbeing is arguably the most essential of the five elements of wellbeing. If you don’t have the opportunity to regularly do something you enjoy — even if it’s more of a passion or interest than something you get paid to do — the odds of your having high wellbeing in other areas diminish rapidly. People with high Career Wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.

Imagine that you have great social relationships, financial security, and good physical health — but you don’t like what you do every day. Chances are, much of your social time is spent worrying or complaining about your lousy job. And this causes stress, taking a toll on your physical health. If your Career Wellbeing is low, it’s easy to see how it can cause deterioration in other areas over time.

Losing your identity

To appreciate how much our careers shape our identity and wellbeing, consider what happens when someone loses a job and remains unemployed for a full year. A landmark study published in The Economic Journal revealed that unemployment might be the only major life event from which people do not fully recover within five years. This study followed 130,000 people for several decades, allowing researchers to look at the way major life events such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or death of a spouse affect our life satisfaction over time.

One of the more encouraging findings was that, even in the face of some of life’s most tragic events like the death of a spouse, after a few years, people do recover to the same level of wellbeing they had before their spouse passed away. But this was not the case for those who were unemployed for a prolonged period of time — particularly not for men. Our wellbeing actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.

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