Want to be Happy at Work? Forget About Passion!

by Beth Cabrera, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar

Want to be Happy at Work? Forget About Passion!
Beth Cabrera

I have two children in college who are thinking a lot about what careers to pursue. My advice to them is not to follow their passions. I want them to be happy, and “following your passion” is not the path for achieving happiness at work. 

To start with, many of us don’t have a passion. I certainly didn’t. Like my children, I had many different interests. It was highly unlikely that any single job would fulfill them all. In this case the advice to follow your passion can lead to insecurity and frustration. It may also lead to job-hopping. If you take a job that doesn’t immediately make you happy, it must not be your passion, so you should try something else. 

For people who do happen to be passionate about something, how to follow it isn’t always clear. Often our passion is in an area where paid work either doesn’t exist or is extremely hard to find. And a recent study from Stanford University and Yale-NUS College suggests that following a single passion may lead you to pass up opportunities to pursue work you might come to love. 

So if following your passion is bad advice, what should you do instead? According to research, there are three things that do contribute significantly to happiness at work: learning, impact, and relationships. Therefore, my advice is to: 

1. Look for a job where you can learn new things and develop your skills.

We all have an innate desire to get better and better at something. Many models of well-being include either learning or personal growth as key factors for thriving. This means you will be happier in a job where you are able to continually learn and improve. The better you get at something, the more you tend to enjoy it. 

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport argues that getting really good at something gives you the leverage you need to obtain whatever it is that will make you happy at work. If you develop rare and valuable skills, you can offer those in exchange for things that will make your job great, like more autonomy or meaningful projects. 

This means that building a career you love takes time and hard work. It’s not as easy as just finding something you’re passionate about. When deciding on a job, choose one where you will have opportunities to learn and develop your talents. In your current job, take advantage of any opportunities to grow your skills – stretch assignments, training, coaching. Whatever you are doing, do your very best work and constantly strive for improvement. 

2. Look for a job where you can make an impact.

Another key factor for well-being is having a sense of meaning in life. You will be happier if you believe the work you do makes a positive contribution. The best way to find meaningful work is to look for problems that need to be solved. So instead of trying to figure out what you’re passionate about, go out into the world to learn about issues that people are facing. What are the most pressing problems? 

Choose a job where you can help to make the world a better place by doing something that is of value to someone else. Consider who will be better off because of what you’ll be doing. In many jobs the work you do may not directly impact a client or customer, but it will help a colleague do his or her job. What outcome will your work enable someone else to achieve? Look for a job where you’ll be able to see how your work benefits others either directly or indirectly. 

When you are just starting out, the impact of the work you do may not be all that great. But you can always find ways to help the people you work with. How can you be of service to them? Focus on the value you can contribute. Developing your skills will allow you to make a bigger impact and will open the doors to more meaningful careers going forward. 

3. Look for a job where you like the people.

Your relationships are the most important factor for your well-being. We have a biological need to belong; to feel connected, understood, recognized, and affirmed. Since you spend most of your waking hours at work, the people you work with matter – a lot! Each interaction you have throughout the day can build you up or tear you down. You may have a job where you are learning new things and making a difference, but if your work environment is full of incivility and you feel neither respected nor appreciated, you will not be happy. If you aren’t happy at work, you’ll be less likely to stick around long enough to create a job you love by developing the skills you need to make a significant impact. 

Your relationships at work also influence your success. People who report having a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs than those who don’t. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that the more people employees knew in the office and the more they interacted with them, the more productive they were. A study at Yale University found that what predicted the success of work teams was not their collective IQ or their number of years of experience; it was only their degree of social cohesion. 

Pay attention to the people you meet during the interview process. Do you like them? Do they seem to care about you? Do you feel like you belong? Ask about the relationships among employees. Are they friends? Do they enjoy working together? Once you are in a job, make an effort to get to know your colleagues. Spending time with someone is the best way to find things you have in common, which builds relationships well. Invite people to lunch and ask about their families or hobbies.

If you want to be happy at work, don’t follow your passion. Instead, build a career you love by choosing a job where you have opportunities to learn and develop your skills, where you can make a positive impact, and where you are surrounded by people who make you smile. 

CWB Senior Scholar Beth Cabrera, Ph.D., shares the power of positivity and purpose through her research, writing, and speaking. She is the author of Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being and co-teaches our Positive Leadership program with Steve Gladis, Ph.D.