What really matters for happiness and health in your career

My co-author of our book on The Longevity Project, Dr. Leslie Martin, and I regularly chat with college students and young professionals who are searching for their ideal careers. They seek a match between their personalities and the demands of their future careers.  How should this choice be made? If you choose the wrong career, will you be unhappy and unhealthy?

In our notions of the “self-healing personality” (a term I coined many years ago), we expect that a good match between an individual’s personality and the demands of his or her environment is a path to mental and physical health. Often this is true. For example, there is no sense in forcing an athletic student who loves roughhousing, an intelligent student who loves reading books, and an extroverted student who loves leadership all to pursue the same after-school activities. It would be better for them to choose according to their abilities and interests. But how much does this matter for our long-term work?

In our work on the Longevity Project, we have been studying over 1500 bright American men and women who were first examined as children by Lewis Terman in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives, and we have evaluated how well they aged and how long they lived. We ask: who lives long, healthy, and thriving lives, and why? Many of the participants do indeed live very long, happy, healthy lives. One particularly interesting finding concerns careers. We focused here on the men in our sample, because the women often faced strong limits on the careers they were allowed pursue (beyond housewife, nurse, secretary, or teacher). But the conclusions should hold true for today’s women as well.

We predicted that the Terman men whose personalities fit well with their jobs would thrive and live longer. It made great intuitive sense to us, but was it true? Things turned out to be more complicated and revealing than we expected. And, overall the surprises were good news.

Across the decades, the average worker spends tens of thousands of hours dedicated to his or her occupation. Psychologist John Holland created one of the most widely used systems for categorizing individuals according to both personality type and occupational environment. Holland believed that the choice of a vocation is often an expression of personality and so developed a framework that we could use for seeing what happens when people work (or do not work) in fields that fit them.

Dr. Holland defined six types that refer both to individuals and to occupations. Realistic occupations are those where people “do” things—engineers, firefighters, pilots, machinists, veterinarians, and so on. Artistic occupations include actors, musicians, designers, and artists. Investigative occupations involve a lot of thinking—economists, professors, and chemists. Social occupations include helpers such as clergy, nurses, teachers, and counselors. Enterprising careers generally involve persuasion such as insurance, politics, and general sales. Conventional occupations emphasize organizational skills, such as administration, financial analysis, and auditing. There is some overlap among these categories but they do a good job of capturing the general emphases of occupational skills, tasks, and interests.

Applying Holland’s categories to the Terman archives, our team (initially motivated by then–graduate student Kathleen Clark) gathered and coded information from 1940 about each person’s likes, dislikes, occupational interests, and preferences for various pursuits. We analyzed about four hundred activities, looking for whether the Terman men worked in occupations that matched their own personality characteristics or whether they had, for various reasons, not worked in their matched fields.

We predicted that those individuals who spent their lives working in occupations that were a good fit for their interests would face less stress and so would be healthier and live longer. For example, we expected that individuals who loved artistic activities would thrive if they worked in an artistic field but suffer if they became, say, financial analysts. But, this did not happen.

In fact, being “matched” to one’s job did not usually matter in the way we expected. A match could actually be a health risk factor. For example, among men in the Enterprising group, those with high similarity between personality and occupation died sooner—assertive, persuasive men who worked in occupations such as sales management were at greater risk than assertive, persuasive men working in other types of occupations. The personality predisposition and the career reinforced each other, bringing out the stresses and unhealthy habits common to each! The one case in which a good career-to-personality match was helpful was the Social category. Men with social personality types (cooperative and having good people skills) who were working in social environments (like counseling) did live longer. All in all, the actual activities mattered more than the match.

Overall, our findings revealed that when choosing a career, finding the “perfect match” does not necessarily put you on a path toward thriving and long life. What mattered more was getting involved in something meaningful, making a contribution, establishing good social relations, and being well-integrated into one’s community.

This doesn’t mean that choosing one’s career path is unimportant. All of us have things that we detest doing, and naturally it would be dumb to choose a job that requires these activities day after day. But living out one’s dreams of childhood was not necessarily what led to thriving. Often, young individuals could not imagine what would be rewarding. It was a productive perseverance, a sense of mastery and accomplishment buoyed by one’s career successes, that did that.

This is a comforting finding for students and young people making life-shaping career choices. Many careers can be fulfilling and rewarding, especially if they give you a chance to be persistent in becoming more responsible and more involved in a meaningful way with other people.

If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.