Callings: A Win-Win for Companies and Employees

             We spend more than a third of our lives and nearly half of our waking lives at work.  While jobs take up the bulk of our lives, people approach work in distinctly different ways.  In order to understand different perspectives that workers have on their jobs, Bellah and colleagues (1985; see also Schwartz, 1986, 1994 as cited in Wrzesniewki, Rozin and Bennet, 2003) divide work in the United States into three orientations:  a job, a career and a calling.  Does having a calling at work as opposed to a job or career lead to higher productivity?  Is it possible to transform a career into a calling?  My paper will support the theory that having a calling is a means to the good life, it can lead to higher productivity, and increasing flow is one of the keys to transforming a career into a calling.

Jobs, Careers and Callings

People who view their employment as a job focus on the material benefits of work and tend to exclude other aspects of meaning and fulfillment.  In this orientation work is a means to an end so that people can enjoy their free time or passions.  Comparatively, those with a career orientation work for the rewards that come from career advancement in a business or corporation.  Career-oriented individuals are concerned with increased prestige and pay that come with advancing to the upper ranks of their organizations.   Advancement brings higher self-esteem, increased power, and higher social standing (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 66 as cited in Wrzesniewki et al., 2003).  And finally, those who consider their job a calling work from an intrinsic orientation.  While an older definition of ‘intrinsic’ focused on achievement, advancement and recognition, newer definitions describe these individuals as those who have a natural inclination toward “exploration, interesting activity and mastery” (Brown and Ryan, 2004).  Their work is linked to a belief that they are making a difference in the world.

Callings and the Good Life

Intrinsic motivation has been linked to higher levels of well being and having the good life.  Self Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985 as cited in King et al., 2004) states that “when individuals engage in activity that satisfies these central organismic needs, they experience genuine happiness and self esteem” (King, Eells and Burton, 2004).  An activity that includes the fulfillment of autonomy, relatedness and competence were found to lead to higher levels of well being in both Eastern and Western cultures (King et al., 2004).  Comparatively, those who focus on extrinsic rewards (i.e. all of the gains that those in careers value) may experience a lower level of well being.  Research has shown that valuing the “attainment of material goals over goals such as autonomy, relatedness and competence is associated with a varied of negative outcomes including mental illness, physical illness, alienation, interpersonal problems, etc.” (Kasser, 2002; Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996 as cited in King et al., 2004).

It would seem that having a calling is beneficial for many reasons.  Wrzesniewki et al. discovered in two different studies that those with calling orientations have a “stronger and more rewarding relationship to their work, which is associated with spending more time in this domain and gaining more enjoyment and satisfaction from it” (1997, Wrzesniewki and Landman, 2000).  Wrzesniewki et al. clarifies that since these studies were not longitudinal we cannot discern the direction of the causal relationship, but as they have discovered all three orientations in the same profession there seems to be evidence that an individual takes an active part in creating their work experience.

Do Callings Benefit Employers?

As cited above, we see that callings at work lead to greater levels of well-being for employees.  And happiness has been shown to lead to career success (Staw, Sutton & Pelled, 1994 as cited in King et al., 2004).  Career success can lead to greater levels of productivity for employers, but is there enough evidence to draw that conclusion?  There has been research to show that employees with callings would continue to work without pay, if it were financially possible (Wrzesniewki et al., 2003).  It seems that regardless of financially constraints, people with callings actually put in more time at work whether or not this time is compensated (Wrzesniewki et al., 1997).  While these studies certainly point to a financial benefit for companies employing or training their staff to develop calling orientations, more research needs to be done regarding the link between callings and productivity.

Flow to a Calling

Flow has actually has been shown to increase productivity at work (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).  Csikszentmihalyi states in his book that “any job could be changed so as to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model” (1990, p. 154).  Redesigning a job based on the flow model would mean concentrating on tasks that employees have a chance of completing (competence), tasks with goals and immediate feedback, matching skills to challenges (competence), giving employees a sense of control and satisfaction (autonomy), and encouraging a deep level of concentration (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 49).  Csikszentmihalyi describes individuals who can turn their profession into complex activities and therefore induce the flow state.  They “did this by recognizing opportunities for action where others did not, by developing skills, by focusing on the activity at hand, and allowing themselves to be lost in the interaction” (1990, p. 151).

Being in the flow state directly benefits employees.  “Whenever people were in flow…they reported it as much more positive experience than the times they were not in flow.  When challenges and skills were both high they felt happier, more cheerful, stronger, more active; the concentrated more; they felt more creative and satisfied” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 159).  It is clear from this research that flow increases enjoyment at work.  Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that increasing enjoyment could preclude productivity in the short run but believes that “if workers really enjoyed their jobs they would not only benefit personally, but sooner or later they would almost certainly produce more efficiently” (p. 154).  Wrzesniewki has begun with important research to support this claim, but further research is needed.

Creating Value for Employees and Employers

As a corporate trainer, I want to discover how I can bring more well-being and success to employees and more profits to employers.  In order to assist the companies I work with, I would give Wrzesniewki’s survey (1997) with a few alterations.  I would control for gender by using the paragraphs with “Mr.” as the descriptor for one group and “Ms.” as the descriptor for another group.  In order to connect callings to productivity I would assess how to operationalize “success” or “productivity” for each company and discuss with management how to measure that.  Taking the results from Wrzesniewki’s survey and the productivity measurement, I would be able to assess if there was a link in each company between having a calling and an increase in productivity.

In addition, I would give them Acacia Park’s flowmeter (see Appendix A) while adjusting the question to pertain specifically to the domain of work.  For those employees who already experience work as a calling, I predict they would have a high level of flow.  For those employees who experience work as a career, I predict they would have a moderate level of flow.  If both callings and careers correlate positively to flow, I would give both my own questionnaire (see sample questions in Appendix B) in order to assess how they think they could increase their level of flow at work.  I believe the job orientation would be difficult to transform into a calling and therefore the primary focus would be on transforming those with careers into calling orientations.  Nevertheless, after assessing the specific results of the final questionnaire, all orientations would achieve instructions as to how to increase their level of flow.

The Good Life Produces Flow

While there have been two schools of thought as to what determines our attachment to work, Wrzesniewki, et al. believe that both the characteristics of a job and the personality of the person in the job come into play (2003).  In this paper I have focused on how a person can shape and transform the characteristics of their job to create more flow and thus transform their job from a career into a calling.  I also believe that transforming a job can affect the personality of the person who performs it.  In addition, I think future research will support the existing empirical data that those employees with callings are actually adding value to their employers.  With the increasing number of hours Americans spend at work, it is a worthy goal to use our employment as a means to the good life for ourselves and the organizations where we work.




Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), In Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990).  Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.  New York:  Harper Perennial.

King, L. A., Eells, J. E., & Burton, C. M.  (2004).   The good life, broadly defined.  In A. Linley, & S. Joseph, (Eds.), Positive Psychology In Practice.  New Jersey:  John Wiley and Sons.

Wrzesniewki, A., Rozin, P., & Bennett, G.  (2003).  Working, playing, and eating: Making the most of most moments.  In C. L. M. Keyes, & J. Haidt (eds.)   Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived (pp.185-204).   Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.

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About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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