There’s no question that doing something you truly care about is a crucial part of a life well-lived. But, according to a new study by Yale-NUS College, when your parents and professors urged you to “find your passion,” they may have been doing you a disservice.
The reason for this is actually quite simple. When you tell someone to “find your passion” or “figure out what you want to do with you life,” you’re implying that there’s only one thing that a person can excel at and be happy doing. After all, we’re a culture that finds it odd to meet someone who was a professional athlete and then became a writer and then went into psychology and then decided to become a chef. But, according to Paul A O’Keefe, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale-NUS college, having that kind of approach to interests can actually help people achieve their dreams.
The researchers wanted to test out how having a “fixed theory,” the belief that something ideal exists for you and simply needs to be found, differed from having a “growth theory,” the idea that multiple interests can develop and be cultivated over time.
In one study, the researchers asked undergraduate students to read two academic articles, one about the arts and one that pertained to sciences. The students who adopted a more “fixed theory” approach to life were less inclined to be interested in the subject that didn’t pertain to the discipline that they felt they were destined for, leading researchers to believe that a “fixed theory” approach makes people less interested in topics outside of their specialty.
In another study, the researchers showed the students a fun, animated video on astrophysics. Afterwards, they gave them a challenging academic article to read on the topic. In comparison to those with a “growth theory,” those who espoused a “fixed theory” were more likely to give up on the article. This led researchers to believe that those who have a “fixed theory” are more likely to quit a pursuit once it becomes difficult, as they figure it was just not meant to be.
The researchers therefore concluded that having a “fixed theory” might actually hinder people from pursuing different interests that could make them happy. Instead, they endorse switching to a “growth theory,” viewing interests as ever-changing, and eschewing the assumption that there’s just one thing that you’re meant to do.
“Encouraging people to develop their passion can not only promote a growth theory but also suggests that it is an active process, not passive,” said O’Keefe. “A hidden positive implication of a growth theory is the expectation that pursuing one’s interests and passions will be difficult at times because people are less likely to give up on them when faced with a challenge.”
The findings have a lot of implications for determining how early we should be asking young adults to decide what discipline to specialize in. But it also has interesting implications for those who are well into their careers, as well.
Maybe you’re an academic who isn’t inspired by her subject anymore, or a doctor who has been dreaming about pursuing something else, but you think that it would be ludicrous to change jobs as your path has already been determined. Recent studies have found that it’s not what people do, but what they don’t do, that they most regret. And novelty is, after all the spice of life. So take the plunge!
And maybe one day we’ll live in a world where people don’t say, “What do you do?” but rather, “What are you doing?” And for more science-backed advice on leading a fulfilled life, read up on all of these amazing things I learned from taking Yale’s Happiness Course.
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