Want Greater Well-being and to Avoid a Heart Attack? Pay Attention to Career Fit

Note:  This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of my book, The Power and Promise of Pathways

Earnings matter, but not as much as we might think. Something else matters more.

Research conducted by researchers at Princeton University, utilizing Gallup data on well-being, discovered there is actually a level of earnings in the U.S. that allows an individual to reach a basic level of life satisfaction. That level of family income is $75,000, but it ranges from $65,000 to $90,000, depending on the cost of living in the region of the country in which you reside.  No doubt, earning less than that level can exacerbate life strains – paying for medical care, keeping the car running, paying monthly bills for housing and food, etc…  But here’s a finding that might surprise your students — earning more than the basic amount does NOT add additional well-being or happiness.[i]  Money helps to avoid pain and discomfort, but it does not ‘buy happiness.’

Earnings by themselves do not create a sense of well-being with a career.  Gallup researchers Tom Rath and Jim Harter note that, when Gallup asks working adults the question, “Do you like what you do each day?” only 20 percent of people offer a strong “yes” in their response.  This poor job fit is a problem for individuals and for the businesses where they are employed.  In their book Well Being, Rath and Harter identify five components of personal well-being: Career, Social, Financial, Physical and Community. [ii]

In observing the impact of career well-being, they summarize,

People usually underestimate the influence of their career on their overall well-being.  But Career Well-being is arguably the most essential of the five elements [emphasis added].  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 well-being in other areas diminish rapidly.  People with high Career Well-being are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.[iii]

When not experiencing career well-being, people are at risk.  The analysis of Gallup research, cited by Rath and Harter, associates a stressful workplace with the over production of the stress-related hormone Cortisol; which can induce long term, chronic health problems.

Findings from research conducted in Sweden showed that individuals with an “incompetent’ boss had a 24 percent increased risk of heart attack, and the risk went up even further if they worked for that boss more than four years.   Further, they discovered that, when individuals used their strengths doing something they enjoyed every day, they were able to consistently work a full forty or so hours each week, but people who “do not get to use their strengths get burned out after just 20 hours of work per week.”[iv]

The danger of having a poor career fit raises serious implications for a person’s well-being.  Assuming the individual can earn a basic level of income to meet personal and family needs, the level of career well-being is going to have a much bigger impact on his or her day-to-day life than a slight bump in earnings can provide.

A strong career development experience will focus first on finding a good career fit, and secondly on making sure that career choice offers a reasonable level of income that can support lifestyle needs and wants.  Let’s help our students avoid making a career choice that is only based on dollar signs!

[i] Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489–16493.

[ii] Rath, Tom & Harter, Jim (2010) Well Being, The Five Essential Elements, Gallup Press, New York, NY

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com).  NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education

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