Psychology has a long and distinguished history when it comes to studying people in the workplace. Studies began over one hundred years ago in Britain on the workforces in the mining and textile industries, mainly regarding productivity and death rates. Occupation fit studies have been done for over 70 years, by Strong, Jackson, and others. Good work is being done all over the world in productivity research and in employee relations research in the field of industrial and organizational psychology. Work has also been done within industry on this topic by the Gallup Organization with the StrengthsFinder instrument.
Does this new upstart subfield within psychology called positive psychology have anything to add to the domain of people in the workplace? If positive psychology is all about positive emotions and human flourishing, what can it say about our work life and how to be happiest and flourishing in it? Being interested in engagement and meaning, this question was obvious to me. So, how can we approach this question? The first place to start is to examine the people IN the occupations. The occupation itself is nothing but the aggregate of all the workers within it. So we need to study the workers themselves.
Studying the Workers
To get meaningful data, we need large numbers of people within each occupation to study. This is the problem for all social sciences, the problem of sample size. How do we get the sample size we need to say something meaningful about one occupation, let alone have enough occupations to have meaningful comparisons between them? This question I will answer in a minute.
What do we want to know about occupations wherein positive psychology would have some expertise? We can talk about goals and hope theory, or look at engagement in the workplace and how much flow is in any given activity, or active constructive responding in employee relations. The list goes on, and a lot has already been addressed in research.
Hypothesis about Character Strengths and Work
Where my curiosity brought me was to the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths questionnaire, or VIA for short. It’s a list of 24 personality strengths of character and positive personal values. Luckily we have an internally consistent and heavily validated questionnaire (taken by over half-a-million people!) that was made just for this. This, now, also takes care of the sample-size problem. Phew!
With my research background in occupational placement tests, and knowing how combining differing interests lead to specific occupations that would fit well with the job seeker, I thought that this would be a unique direction to pursue. I hypothesized that each occupation would have a unique mix of character strengths; that is, on average, the workers in any given occupation would exhibit a particular combination of character strengths, unique to their specific occupation. No other such test has been done that tries to fit job seekers to occupations by the personal values and strengths of character that they hold. So I thought it was worth it.
My results show that this is actually the case: that occupations show unique profiles of character strengths, particularly when compared to the population at large. (For example, artists have appreciation of beauty and excellence as their top strength, and lawyers are particularly low in spirituality!) That’s great, and this gives us stronger footing to now study a question that is really closer to my heart than this was: what about having a calling, a vocation, an occupation we LOVE? Is there something special about people in these occupations that feel they have a calling? Would their average character strengths profiles look different from all the others in the occupation that don’t see it as a calling?
Enter the Job/Career/Calling Questionnaire
This is a great question to ask, but how do we find out something like that? Not to mention have a validated questionnaire to ask something as “do you love your job?”, but also having it coupled with the VIA questionnaire. Well, luckily we do! The Work-Life Questionnaire is a validated questionnaire that addresses this very question, and is available to the same half-a-million respondents to the VIA. It tells the questioner whether they see their occupation as a job (money to pay the rent, punch the clock), a career (climb the ladder, make more money), or a calling (would do it regardless of pay).
I believe that people in occupations who see their work as a calling will have on average a different profile than people in the same occupations that do not see their work as a calling. This is my next step for research and a strong area of interest. I can’t wait to find out!
Stay tuned to this posting to hear more about occupations, character strengths, and callings. More studies and data are to come! I’m here every 6th of the month, and I’ll also post on whatever else fills my fancy. Cheers!
Editor’s note: The following paper was published 2 years later:
Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., & Seligman, M. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 161–172.
IMG_1478 courtesy of thaumazin
That’s very exciting. I’d love to hear more as the research develops.
Thanks! Stay tuned, you will.
I also have a comment for you on Sherri’s.
I think that there are times when you should not see your work as a calling. If a job doesn’t jive with your values and ethics, say you are building nuclear bombs or selling cigarettes, it seems wrong to want to see that in a positive light. I’m sure you could do so, but what is an essential question that would guide you in whether you should do so or not?(Where’s the ethicist Peter Singer when you need him)?
A follow up: with the decline of religious doctrines holding power over the Shoulds. Should I eat meat, should I support this war, should I vote pro-death penalty or pro-euthanasia, where do we find a simple straightforward way to guide us in the SHOULDS? What is the best guide for ethical behavior?
Hey Nick! Please tell us the answer in your next article, what is the strengths profile of someone who has a calling? I’m dying to know. Then please research interventions to build those strengths, so we can all be fortunate enough to have our callings 🙂
My simple study is not trying to tell anyone what they ‘should’ do. Nor is it about reframing your current occupation in a positive light. That’s up to you. I’m analyzing data.
Oh, and, should you eat meat? The answer is no, and not for ethical reasons. 🙂
The sooner I get this data analyzed, the sooner you’ll all find out! 😀
Jeff, There’s a chapter in Chris Peterson’s book, A Primer on Positive Psychology on values and another on positive institutions. Both are relevant for your “should” questions. Besides, it is fun to spend time with Chris’s way of saying things.
I own the Primer and its a good text on the subject. I think my question was aimed at finding a secular and ubiquitous ethics. A basic system that isn’t culture bound. Any comments in that direction?
I love the research you’re doing. It’s very important! Do you have any early results you can report on the character strengths profiles. I’d love to know.
Best to you Senor!