Will high stress kill you, save your life, or neither?

Many people assume stress is obviously bad, and lots of people tell us they want to find a “low stress job”. But a new book (and TED talk with over 10 million views) by psychologist Kelly McGonigal claims that stress is only bad if you think it is, and that stress can make us stronger, smarter and happier. So are most people wrong, or is stress only bad if you have the wrong attitude towards it?

We did a survey of the literature, and found that as is often the case, the truth lies in between. Stress can be good in some circumstances, but some of McGonigal’s claims also seem overblown.

  • In summary, whether work demands have good or bad effects seems to depend on the following things:
    VariableGood (or neutral)Bad
    Type of stressIntensity of demandsChallenging but achievableMismatched with ability (either too high or too low)
    DurationShort-termOn-going
    ContextControlHigh control and autonomyLow control and autonomy
    PowerHigh powerLow power
    Social SupportGood social supportSocial isolation
    How to copeMindsetReframe demands as opportunities, stress as usefulView demands as threats, stress as harmful to health
    AltruismPerforming altruistic actsFocusing on yourself

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How important is finding a career that matches your strengths?

One of the most common ideas in career advice is that finding a good career is a matter of finding the role that uniquely matches who you are. You’ll be fantastic at the career that best matches you, and terrible at other careers, so the mission should be to find the career that’s the best match.

We haven’t found much support for this idea so far. The most in-depth attempt to study “match” is Holland-types, but several meta-analyses have found no or only a very weak relationship between Holland-type match and performance (or job satisfaction). On the other hand, we’ve encountered some important general predictors of success. For instance, hundreds of studies have found that the smarter you are, the more likely you are to succeed in almost every career. With a general predictor like intelligence, more is always better – it’s not that it means you’ll do well in some jobs but worse in others depending on your “match”.

However, a new line of research into “strengths” might shift the picture. There have been two attempts – the Virtues in Action (VIA) Signature Strengths test and Strengths Finder – to determine people’s character strengths, and study the importance of leading a career in line with them.

We did a review of the literature to see whether we should incorporate them into our advice, which we summarise below.

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New TEDx talk released!

Check out the TEDx talk video by our Executive Director and co-founder Benjamin Todd.

In it, Ben sets out what we’ve learned through our research about finding fulfilling work. Rather than following your passion, find something you’re good at that helps others. If you aim to do what’s valuable, passion for your work will emerge. And you can also make a big difference with your life.

If you like what you see, please go ahead and share the video. We’d like to get it listed on the main TED channel!

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Update: Don’t follow your passion

Some have claimed “follow your passion” is the definitive career advice of our time.

The idea behind the slogan “follow your passion” is that the best way to choose a career is to:

  1. Identify your passions through self-reflection.
  2. Identify careers that involve those passions.
  3. Try to get one of those careers.

The reason this advice works is because:

  1. Matching your career with your passions in this way is the best way to be truly satisfied with your work.
  2. If you’re satisfied with your work, you’ll be good at what you do.
  3. Being good at what you do is the best way to make the world a better place.

We mainly disagree with the first and last claims: matching your career with your passions is not a particularly good way to find satisfying work, and being good at what you do is only one factor that matters for having a social impact.

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What we can learn about career choice from the Terman study

Terman2

The Terman study is the longest running longitudinal studies ever to be carried out in psychology. The study included 1,528 of the most intelligent children born between 1900 and 1925. It started in 1921, and the participants have been followed up every four to five years ever since. Data was collected on their personality, habits, life-choices, health and much more. This allows researchers to track the results of different life choices over decades.

Two of the leading researchers working on the Terman study recently released a book: The Longevity Project, which aims to uncover the factors that lead to the participants having long and healthy lives.

The book has a fascinating chapter on career choice (though I’d recommend the whole thing).

Here’s a summary of the key conclusions:

The factors leading to career success

  • Intelligence predicts success, but it’s no guarantee. All of the participants in the Terman study were very bright, but a quarter ended up in less prestigious occupations, like clerical workers and craftsmen. Only one fifth ended up ‘highly successful’ – prominent doctors or lawyers, accomplished in the arts, or leading scientists. One fifth ended up ‘unsuccessful’ within their professions.
  • The more successful, the longer they lived. The most successful men lived on average five years longer than the least. In fact, Terman’s rating of success at age 30 predicted life-span decades later.
  • This effect was not explained by greater wealth, avoiding smoking and drinking, a happier marriage, more education, or conscientiousness (although conscientiousness did explain part of the effect).
  • A stable career with a clear progression of rising responsibilities also predicted longevity, compared to a ‘drifting’ career through many different professions.
  • Continuing to work into old age was a significant predictor of longevity.
  • Overall, the findings do not suggest that avoiding stress and responsibility is a good strategy for having a healthy life. Rather, they suggest that the becoming the type of person who perseveres to achieve ambitious goals leads to both success and health.
  • This links to a broader theme in positive psychology – in Flourish, Seligman proposes that achievement is one of the five key components of a flourishing life.

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More on What Really Matters for Finding a Job You Love

We think being satisfied in the work you do is really crucial if you want to make a difference: you won’t be motivated otherwise. This is why we’ve spent time over the past year trying to summarise the evidence-based research on job satisfaction, to help you find a job you’ll love and make a difference in. In doing this, we found something a bit surprising: the common view that you should find a career that is a good fit for your personality type doesn’t have much support in the job satisfaction literature. The evidence seems to point towards the characteristics of the job itself (things like having variety, a sense of contribution, and clearly defined tasks) being more important than your personality fit.

Of course, we don’t think that this is the end of it – that all that matters when it comes to job satisfaction are five simple factors. So we’ve spent a bit more time delving into the job satisfaction literature to get a better sense of what personal or social factors might be most important alongside this. One finding that seems to be fairly well supported is that, whilst “personality fit” might not matter that much, feeling socially supported at work on the other hand, does.

In summary:

  • Feeling like you are socially supported at work – that you are able to get help and advice from your supervisors and coworkers – correlates with increased satisfaction at work

  • This is pretty intuitive, and seems to be both due to the direct benefits of social interactions, and the fact that support from coworkers also means we’re less likely to suffer from stress

  • This suggests it may be worth explicitly focusing on finding a working environment where you feel supported e.g. having a manager who you can go to with problems, perhaps above things like “personality fit” or “being the right type of person.” It also means that organisations (like 80,000 Hours!) should make creating this environment high priority

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Does your personality matter in picking a career?

In order to work out current best practice within career advising, we looked into personality testing. Several people I have asked for advice have recommended that we consider using it.

Having investigated the leading personality tests, however, we’ve concluded that they’re not very useful in choosing your career. This is because they haven’t been shown to predict the real world outcomes that matter: (i) finding careers you will find satisfying (ii) finding careers that you will succeed in.

Hollandtypes

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How important is fitting in at work?

For most people, having a career which is a good “fit” for their personality and interests is extremely high priority. Unsurprisingly, the notion of “person-environment fit” is fundamental to most careers advice. The general idea is that a) people have different personalities and interests, b) different types of people are suited to different working environments and c) finding the right working environment for your personality and interests is crucial to finding a job you’ll enjoy and be successful in.

However, despite several decades of research attempts, psychologists have failed to demonstrate that fit with the workplace has any substantial effect on job satisfaction or job performance. This suggests the normal approach of (i) working out your interests and personality and then (ii) finding a job to match them might be wrong – it doesn’t seem to help you find a job you enjoy or are good at!

This is surprising: it seems intuitively obvious that your fit with your work environment is important. It might be that the effect is too complex to be picked up in the existing studies, and that improved survey design would uncover a stronger connection. But we should also consider whether being a good fit with your work is less important than we first think.

Not_fitting_in

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Our research on how to find a job you love

Note: this post has been superseded by our job satisfaction page and supporting research page.

Many people aren’t as satisfied as they could be with their careers. This is a big problem: not only is the person less happy, they also end up making less difference in society. The even bigger problem is that people don’t seem to know what to do about this – how to find a job that they’ll find satisfying. There’s a lot of psychology research on happiness that could be really useful, but people don’t seem to be aware of it or at least aren’t applying it. So we decided to start collecting together the research that seems most useful to job satisfaction, and explaining how it applies to your career decisions.

I-love-my-job

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Does money make you happy?

If we’re to believe the Internet, various apologists for materialism have quipped that whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop. Indeed, the happiness of others can be bought at bargain-basement prices with a donation to an effective charity. If you’re thinking of donating a substantial portion of your income, though, it’s natural to wonder how your well-being will be affected. What can research tell us about this..?

Happiness_and_income

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Should we sacrifice doing what we love to make a difference? part 1

We all want to find a career which makes us happy: but for many there seems to be a conflict between doing what one loves, and making a difference. My initial interest in 80,000 Hours was sparked by a desire to resolve a conflict between wanting to make a difference in my career, and wanting to pursue philosophy research (which I considered fairly low impact.)(1) I recognised that I could potentially make more difference by applying my numerical skills to a high-earning career and donating to greater causes – but the thing is, I just don’t want to do this. And shouldn’t this count for something, even for the aspiring effective altruist? Should we have to give up doing what we love in order to make a difference?

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How to find a job you’ll love

If you want to be satisfied at work, what characteristics should you look for? Prestige, money, something you’re passionate about, a corner office? Books on careers guidance often start by asking you to consider your values and desired lifestyle, and then to find a job that matches them. But why expect this approach to work? Research has shown that the only consistently present characteristic of satisfying jobs is that the work itself is mentally challenging (1)(2). This suggests that finding challenging work should be the starting point for a satisfying career.

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Don’t ‘do what you’re passionate about’ – part 1

Common advice in choosing a career is “do what you’re passionate about.” An article on lifehack begins: “If you could do one thing to transform your life, I would highly recommend it be to find something you’re passionate about, and do it for a living.” The first paragraph of the major careers advice book Career Ahead ends “You owe it to yourself to do work that you love. This book will show you how.” But what happens if your passion is for beautifully executed contract killings?

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The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: A popular but flawed way of understanding your personality

It’s difficult to work out which jobs will suit you. To help with this problem, a variety of personality tests have been developed. It’s hoped these tests provide understanding of your personality in a way that can be used to predict what sorts of job might suit.

One of the most widely used tests is the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI). According to Malcolm Gladwell, 2.5 million Americans every year take the test and 89 out of the fortune 100 companies use it.

But it turns out there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about its use in choosing careers…

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