Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Confucius Was Not a Qualified Career Adviser

Credit: Sunny studio

Credit: Sunny studio

By Kieran Carmichael

Turning your hobby into your job may not necessarily lead to happiness.

We have all heard the Confucius quote: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. Steve Jobs told us all a similar message in his moving Stanford Commencement address.

The reasoning behind this is very intuitive. Most of us work around 38 hours per week – at least that’s all they pay us for – so if we could spend 38 hours per week being paid for doing the things we love doing, we would live a happy life. The problem is that it might not be so simple after all.

Self-determination theory might provide some insight into why turning your passion into your job might not always be the best option. One aspect of this theory suggests that external rewards undermine intrinsic motivation for behaviours. This may mean that earning money (an external reward) will reduce our enjoyment (intrinsic motivation) of certain activities, such as our hobbies. This suggests that if we are one of the lucky few to follow our dreams and be employed doing something we love, we might not love it for much longer.

This aspect of the theory has considerable empirical support. For instance, a meta-analysis of 128 existing studies on the topic found that external rewards can, and often do, undermine intrinsic motivation ( because they change our perception of why we are doing something. When external contingencies come into the situation we start to see work as a means of putting food on the table and paying the mortgage rather than doing it for its own intrinsic reward. This leads to us having a reduced sense of autonomy and an increased sense of being controlled, and this ultimately leads to a decline in enjoyment and intrinsic motivation to perform our once-loved behaviour. Put simply, if you turn what you love into your job, you might very well stop loving it.

This leaves us with two questions to answer. First, what makes a job enjoyable if it is not an intrinsic enjoyment? For this we need to turn to the job and work design literature, which suggests a range of things that contribute to satisfaction with jobs. These include having a variety of tasks, having autonomy, seeing the product through from start to finish, giving back to society, and providing a sense of accomplishment.

The second question goes further than that, and really underpins this whole narrative: what makes an enjoyable or worthwhile life? For this question we need to start looking toward the field of positive psychology, which approaches this existential question from a scientific perspective.

Martin Seligman, a key researcher in the area, proposes five areas that promote existential enjoyment in people’s lives:

  1. positive emotions like gratitude, curiosity and love;
  2. engagement (being in the present);
  3. relationships of all sorts;
  4. attaching yourself to something greater (e.g. a cause, a religion, your family); and
  5. having achievable goals and celebrating them.

    1. While it’s common to hear that we need to find what we love and turn it into a job in order to be happy and live a fulfilling life, this may not really be the case. We might instead stop enjoying what we once loved, and lose an enjoyable hobby rather than gaining an enjoyable job.

      Instead, to enjoy our job we need to design them in fulfilling ways. And to be happy in life we need to look to positive psychology and start working on the five areas of life that are the most important for our happiness.

      Kieran Carmichael is a Master of Organisational Psychology candidate at The University of Queensland.