This post first appeared on Acculturated.com
by Ryan Duffy
Imagine you work at a job where your boss only cares about himself and openly dumps all of his work onto you. Your primary job tasks involve responding to citizen complaints and organizing community projects that more often than not go unnoticed. Oh yeah, and your coworkers consist of a well-meaning idiot, a selfish brat, a status-driven wannabe entrepreneur, a clumsy kiss-up, and an exercise fanatical perfectionist, among others. When you finally get a promotion to your dream job, one fellow coworker bribes you to get your new office and another makes you eat a bite of their Caesar salad and then tries to kiss you. Yet at the end of each day you (almost) always feel thrilled about your job.
For the approximately 3.5 million of us who have hung in there with Parks and Recreation over the last five seasons, the person described above is immediately recognizable: the positive, loveable, hardworking, selfless Leslie Knope, played expertly by Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler. For the first four seasons of the series, Leslie was the deputy director of the parks department in a small, fictitious town in Indiana called Pawnee, and at the end of the fourth season gets elected to city council. In the face of bad bosses, weird coworkers, and demanding and unappreciative citizens, Leslie somehow manages to truly love what she does. This is because, in “psychological speak,” Leslie approaches her work as a calling.
Psychologists have recently taken a keen interest in studying what it means to have and live out a calling. A calling is different from a job or career–it is something that a person feels pulled to do, is a central part of their life meaning or purpose, and is specifically used to help others. As deputy director of the parks department or as a city councilwoman, Leslie is defined by her job. As someone who constantly works to make Pawnee healthier or gives birthday celebrations even for her crotchety boss, Leslie is always helping others by her work or in her workplace. Research has shown that people like Leslie who live out their calling are more committed to, and happier with, their jobs and are also happier in life. In jobs that are particularly challenging like Leslie’s, having a calling may function as a protective mechanism–helping people stay motivated and engaged because they know this is they job they are supposed to be doing.
People who work in a mostly thankless job and/or in a workplace that is a few steps away from healthy might be able to learn a thing or two from Leslie. If we too want to reap those benefits of living out a calling, it may be less about choosing a perfect job and more about making the most of the job we do have. Maybe we can follow Leslie’s lead and ponder from time to time the ways we can make our work more meaningful and impactful–doing so may ultimately help us feel some of that Knope gusto.
Ryan Duffy is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida and coauthor of the book Make Your Job a Calling (Templeton Press, October 2012). He and his coauthor Bryan Dik have just started a blog at Psychology Today titled Vocation, Vocation, Vocation.