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Finding fulfillment at work: Is it love at first sight or a cultivated passion?

USC and University of Michigan scientists find either approach can provide a sense of well-being

man with rose in teeth
There’s more than one way to attain passion for work, a new study finds. (Photo/istock)

To employees who have not yet found their “perfect fit” in a career: Take heart.

There is more than one way to attain passion for work, USC and University of Michigan researchers found in a recent study.

“The good news is that we can change our mindsets or our strategies and be just as effective in the long run at attaining well-being at work,” said Norbert Schwarz, the Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing and co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center.

Two popular theories

The researchers explored the two popular theories that one achieves a passion for work either by following one’s heart or by developing a passion for a vocation over time. The series of four studies and a pretest survey involved 98 to 272 subjects — most of whom were in their 30s and 40s.

The scientists found that people can agree with both the “fit” and the “develop” theories, but they generally subscribe to one theory more than the other. Regardless of which they believe most, they can achieve an equal sense of fulfillment in their line of work, the researchers found.

The primary difference, however, was in how they arrived at this same outcome, said Patricia Chen, a University of Michigan graduate student who led the project before she moved to Stanford University. People who believe more in the “fit” theory may change jobs more often than those who believe more in the “develop” theory.

Fit theorists seek compatibility between their interests and their vocations.

Patricia Chen

“Fit theorists seek compatibility between their interests and their vocations. Hence, they prioritize enjoyment from the outset in their vocations because they consider that a sign of compatibility — or lack thereof,” Chen said. “If it is not initially perceived as enjoyable, they are likely to conclude that there is a poor fit, which has a substantial impact on their overall work well-being.

“In contrast, ‘develop’ theorists anticipate their passion to increase over time,” she said. “So they are generally more willing to prioritize goals other than immediate enjoyment in their vocational choices. That should also make them more likely to tolerate some lack of enjoyment early on.”

Further testing needed

When asked how it’s possible for someone to develop a passion for a job or a work environment that they despise or fear, Schwarz said that isn’t yet clear to scientists, and cautioned against applying the study’s results empirically until further testing.

He added, though: “We do think that people can grow into a challenging job by developing the skills needed and good relationships with their colleagues, but that may not necessarily overcome the negative impact of all bad working conditions, nor should it become a justification for bad working conditions.”

Job-hopping is becoming more common for workers, the researchers noted. They advised that college students who will one day join the full-time work force shouldn’t feel intimidated.

Chen concluded with these words of assurance: “We understand that these life decisions can feel daunting. To help you make your decisions, think about what you want a fit in and what you can grow into. And take heart that it can work out fine both ways.”

The study, led by Chen with fellow University of Michigan researcher Phoebe Ellsworth and Schwarz at USC, was published online by the Personality and Psychology Bulletin on July 31.

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Finding fulfillment at work: Is it love at first sight or a cultivated passion?

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