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Business Journal
Your Career Well-Being and Your Identity
Business Journal

Your Career Well-Being and Your Identity

by Tom Rath and Jim Harter

Do you like what you do each day?

This might be the most basic, yet important, well-being question we can ask ourselves. Yet only 20% of people can give a strong "yes" in response.

At a fundamental level, we all need something to do, and ideally something to look forward to, when we wake up every day. What you spend your time doing each day shapes your identity, whether you are a student, parent, volunteer, retiree, or have a more conventional job.

We spend the majority of our waking hours during the week doing something we consider a career, occupation, vocation, or job. When people first meet, they ask each other, "What do you do?" If your answer to that question is something you find fulfilling and meaningful, you are likely thriving in Career Well-Being.

Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements

People usually underestimate the influence of their career on their overall well-being. But Career Well-Being is arguably the most essential of the five elements of well-being. If you don't have the opportunity to regularly do something you enjoy -- even if it's more of a passion or interest than something you get paid to do -- the odds of your having high well-being in other areas diminish rapidly. People with high Career Well-Being are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.

Imagine that you have great social relationships, financial security, and good physical health -- but you don't like what you do every day. Chances are, much of your social time is spent worrying or complaining about your lousy job. And this causes stress, taking a toll on your physical health. If your Career Well-Being is low, it's easy to see how it can cause deterioration in other areas over time.

Losing your identity

To appreciate how much our careers shape our identity and well-being, consider what happens when someone loses a job and remains unemployed for a full year. A landmark study published in The Economic Journal revealed that unemployment might be the only major life event from which people do not fully recover within five years. This study followed 130,000 people for several decades, allowing researchers to look at the way major life events such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or death of a spouse affect our life satisfaction over time.

One of the more encouraging findings was that, even in the face of some of life's most tragic events like the death of a spouse, after a few years, people do recover to the same level of well-being they had before their spouse passed away. But this was not the case for those who were unemployed for a prolonged period of time -- particularly not for men. Our well-being actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.

The Impact on Wellbeing

This doesn't mean that getting fired will harm your well-being forever. The same study also found that being laid off from a job in the last year did not result in any significant long-term changes. The key is to avoid sustained periods of unemployment (more than a year) when you are actively looking for a job but unable to find one. In addition to the obvious loss of income from prolonged unemployment, the lack of regular social contact and the daily boredom might be even more detrimental to your well-being.

You don't need to earn a paycheck to have thriving Career Well-Being. But you do need to find something that you enjoy doing.

You don't need to earn a paycheck to have thriving Career Well-Being. But you do need to find something that you enjoy doing -- and have an opportunity to do it every day. Whether that means working in an office, volunteering, raising your children, or starting your own business, what matters most is being engaged in the career or occupation you choose.

Waiting for the bell to ring

Think back to when you were in school sitting through a class in which you had very little interest. Perhaps your eyes were fixed on the clock or you were staring blankly into space. You probably remember the anticipation of waiting for the bell to ring so you could get up from your desk and move on to whatever was next. More than two-thirds of workers around the world experience a similar feeling by the end of a typical workday.

To explore why so many people are disengaged at work, we recruited 168 employees and studied their engagement, heart rate, stress levels, and various emotions throughout the day. Before the study began, we collected data about each employee's level of engagement. We examined the differences between employees who were generally engaged in their jobs and those who were not. As part of the experiment, the participants carried a handheld device that alerted them at various points in the day when we would ask them what they were doing, who they were with, and several other questions about their mood.

We also asked each participant to wear a small heart rate monitor. At the end of each day, these monitors, which were smaller than a quarter and attached to the chest like a sticker, were connected to a computer to download data. This allowed us to study the relationship between fluctuations in heart rate and various events throughout the day.

Saliva samples were also collected to gauge stress levels throughout the day (via the stress hormone, cortisol). Whenever the handheld device beeped and requested an entry in the electronic journal, participants were asked to spit into a small tube. The cortisol levels in the saliva provided us with a direct physiological measure of stress levels at various points each day.

After reviewing all of these data, it was clear that when people who are engaged in their jobs show up for work, they have an entirely different experience than those who are disengaged. For those who were engaged, happiness and interest throughout the day were significantly higher. Conversely, stress levels were substantially higher for those who were disengaged. Perhaps most strikingly, disengaged workers' stress levels decreased and their happiness increased toward the end of the workday. People with low engagement and low Career Well-Being are simply waiting for the workday to end.

The Five Essential Elements of Well-Being

For more than 50 years, Gallup scientists have been exploring the demands of a life well-lived. More recently, in partnership with leading economists, psychologists, and other acclaimed scientists, Gallup has uncovered the common elements of well-being that transcend countries and cultures. This research revealed the universal elements of well-being that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They represent five broad categories that are essential to most people:

  • Career Well-Being: how you occupy your time -- or simply liking what you do every day
  • Social Well-Being: having strong relationships and love in your life
  • Financial Well-Being: effectively managing your economic life
  • Physical Well-Being: having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis
  • Community Well-Being: the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live


Clark, A.E., Diener, E., Georgellis, Y., & Lucas, R.E. (2008). Lags and leads in life satisfaction: A test of the baseline hypothesis. The Economic Journal, 118(529), F222-F243.

Stone, A., & Harter, J.K. (2009). The experience of work: A momentary perspective. Omaha, NE: Gallup.


Jim Harter, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist, Workplace for Gallup and bestselling author of Culture Shock, Wellbeing at Work and It's the Manager. Dr. Harter has led more than 1,000 studies of workplace effectiveness. His work has also appeared in many publications, including Harvard Business Review, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and in many prominent academic journals.

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