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  • Ali Boston

Should you worry about finding a job you love?

Does being passionate about your work make you better at it? And does it make you happier? MeaningSphere’s Ali Boston explores whether you really need to worry about finding a job you love to live a fulfilled life.

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“Do what you love.” “Follow your passion.” These mantras are everywhere from social media to self-help books. And they make sense, don’t they? We spend a huge portion of our waking lives working. Why wouldn’t we want to make sure we’re spending that time doing something we love? More than 75 percent of college-educated workers say that passion is an important factor when making a career decision, and 67 percent say they would prioritize meaningful work over job stability, high wages and work-life balance, according to research by sociologist Erin Cech.

But as I started thinking about love at work, I began to wonder: do you really need to worry about finding a job you love  to live a fulfilled life? After all, until fairly recently in human history, work was simply a means to an end—a way to earn money to support a living. So, I set out to explore what the benefits of loving your job are and how important it really is.

Psst: Take the first step towards finding love in your work by understanding yourself. Download our free self-assessment starter from our Resources page!

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The science behind love for your work

In Love + Work (see our review here), human performance researcher Marcus Buckingham urges the importance of love for our work. When we fall in love, the chemicals oxytocin, dopamine, norepinephrine and vasopressin are present in our brain. As Buckingham writes in his book, researchers have found that this same combination of chemicals (with the addition of anandamide) are also present in the brain when we experience love for our work. These chemicals help us better notice other people’s emotions; remember details; perform cognitive tasks; and be more optimistic, loyal, forgiving and open.

Perhaps it seems obvious that there must be numerous benefits to loving our jobs, because the opposite—hating our jobs—sounds so unappealing. But whether or not loving your job actually makes you better at your job appears to be less clear. After all, you can probably think of plenty of examples of people who don’t particularly love their jobs, but still seem to do well at it, or vice versa. One study I found noted that passionate employees were perceived as performing better than their peers by their managers. These employees received all the benefits associated with being high performers, such as promotions and higher pay, but there was no real evidence to say they actually did perform better.

There’s also a darker side to loving your work we shouldn’t overlook. As the Economist points out, two of the main ways we can express how much we love our jobs is to work longer hours and volunteer to take on more work—which can lead to overwork and burnout in the long run. Research shows that being passionate about your work can lead to exhaustion and burnout, without careful self-regulation. It’s important to note that research splits work passion into two distinct types—harmonious and obsessive passion. In a five-month study of South Korean workers, researchers found that harmonious passion was positively associated with career commitment, satisfaction and career decision-making efficacy, while obsessive passion wasn’t significantly associated with these benefits.

Some experts argue that today’s emphasis on love at work can lead to misaligned expectations from work, particularly among young people. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and overwhelm as we struggle to find that “dream” job. To avoid disappointment, researchers Lauren C. Howe, Jon M Jachimowicz and Jochen I. Menges recommend pursuing passions outside work in an article for Harvard Business Review, using work as a way to support or fund those personal passions. At first glance, this seems like an interesting solution. Yet, I can’t help thinking that not everyone has the opportunity to craft their lives in such a way due to financial needs or family commitments. I find myself wondering whether simply looking outside work for love is a satisfying conclusion. Back to that nugget that we spend so much of our waking lives working—shouldn’t we at least try to get more from our work?

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Love is in the details

Perhaps the problem is that the quest to find our “dream” job reinforces the idea that we all have to find the One Thing we love to do. In their book, Designing Your Life (check out our review here), Stanford educators Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write that most people have many different passions. Their approach to “life design” focuses on prototyping different lives to find out what you like to do. It’s less about finding the One Thing you love, but instead understanding the many things you like to do, how they fit with your lifestyle or the life you want to have and finding ways to shape your life accordingly.

In Love + Work, Marcus Buckingham supports a similar way of thinking. He recommends finding out what the tasks are that you love doing and looking for those tasks within the job that you have. It’s not about loving your work all the time, but ensuring that you get to do enough of things that you love within the framework of your job. He cites research from the Mayo Clinic, which found that you only need to ensure you’re spending at least 20 percent of your time on tasks and activities that you love to reduce your risk of burnout. Contrary to corporate attempts to promote “purpose” as a means to better engage employees, Buckingham argues that it’s what you do, not why you do it, that matters more because, after all, it’s the what that impacts our day-to-day experience of work.

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A balanced approach to loving what you do

Perhaps because I’m British, I’ve got a soft spot for everything in moderation. Extremes are scary. In this case, full-on, obsessive passion for your work doesn’t appear to be healthy. At the same time, the opposite—loathing your job—doesn’t seem like an appealing way to spend a most of your waking hours either.

What’s clear is that our individual needs from work are different and that those needs change throughout our lives. At 25, I was looking for my first step on the career ladder and the social benefits of being part of a company after moving to a new city. By my early thirties, I was looking for opportunities that would allow me to live in the same place as my (now) husband. I expect my needs—and the role that work plays in my life and loves—to keep on changing through the decades of my working life. As Burnett and Evans write in Designing Your Life: designing a worklife that you love is an ongoing, lifelong process.

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