As a college professor, I hear a lot of students talking about how much they hate their classes. (I did, too, at one time.) In fact, not only do they hate the seemingly random General Education classes they have to take to graduate, but they also hate the very classes that make up their major–that specific subject area they have chosen to specialize in.
Just the other day, one of my students was telling me about her roommate, who is majoring in nursing. The roommate said she hates everything about her major: the classes, the studying, the thought of working with patients.
(The thought of working with patients?! Geez, I hope that’s not the case with the nurses I see.)
But yet, her plan is still to pursue a career in nursing.
Unfortunately, I don’t think her case is unique. Instead, it seems to be true for a lot of college students. Their plan is take courses in a major they hate, graduate from college, and then spend some of the most definitive years of their lives in a career that will ask them to do the very same things they had to do in the classes they hated so much.
I’ll be honest with you: I just don’t get it.
Why would anyone pick a major he or she hates and then choose to pursue a career in that area? I’m sure there are many reasons: pressure from parents and societal expectations are two likely candidates. I initially chose to be an electrical engineering major because I wanted to “look good”–although choosing a career path for that reason quickly caught up with me, and after 1 year of living that life, I was miserable.
There’s one other cause that also comes to mind: money. Many students choose a particular career path because they believe that having a lot of money is necessary for living a good life.
Here’s the reality, though. A good chunk of psychological research has shown that having more money will probably not make you significantly happier.
Early research by Myers and Diener (1995), for example, found that although income in the U.S. has increased significantly since the 1960s, happiness has not (the following graph shows income adjusted for inflation).
And if that picture doesn’t convince you, take a minute to think about people in your life. I bet you can identify someone who probably makes a lot of money but hates his or her life. If money was the sole prescription for happiness, that wouldn’t be the case.
More recently, the money-happiness picture has been clarified a bit. For instance, research shows that having money does increase happiness somewhat, but only if you use it in very particular ways (like buying things for others and purchasing experiences over material goods); this effect is also smaller if you already make a decent salary.
Money aside, let’s take a closer look at what your life would look like if you decided to pursue a career you hate.
Traditionally, the U.S. work week has been 40 hours long: 8 hours per day, Monday through Friday. Once 5 PM on Friday rolled around, a person didn’t necessarily have to think about work again until Monday morning.
Although the 8-hour work day has been the standard for years, I think it greatly underestimates the truth.
First of all, we spend a good chunk of time each day getting ready for and unwinding from work. If a person starts work at 8 AM, she is probably spending at least an hour (or more) on what I call “work prep”: showering, brushing her teeth, making breakfast, making coffee to drink in the car (even though it will stain the teeth she just brushed), commuting, and so on. Add another 30-60 minutes to that number if a person lives in a large city and has to commute a long distance. Assuming that commuting also occurs at the end of the day, add another 30-60 minutes. I think we need to add these pre- and post-work hours into the mix, because much of that time is spent thinking about our work days.
So, if we lean on the conservative side, we’re probably up to 9-10 hours per day (a statistic that’s in line with a 2013 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
The same report also showed that about 1/3 of Americans work at home after the workday is “complete” (and this is more likely for people who have a bachelor’s degree or higher). In the age of easily accessible email and the Internet, this doesn’t surprise me a bit: It’s just so easy to sit with our laptops or iPads and answer emails, work on projects, and do other work-related activities. In fact, a 2012 report showed that over two thirds of Americans start checking email before 8 AM every morning, and 40% do the same after 10 PM.
Add another hour or so for answering emails or working on take-home projects every day, and we’re now up to 11 hours per day of work-related activities. (By the way, that number is nearly 40% over the “standard” 8-hour work day I mentioned earlier.)
Now, let’s assume that you sleep about 7-8 hours per night (which is a tad under the average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Take 24 hours and subtract 7-8 for sleeping, and you’re now down to 16-17 hours of awake time each day. Of those 16-17 hours, you’re spending 11 on work-related activities.
If you’re the kind of person who understands percentages better than raw numbers, let me do the math for you.
That’s nearly 70% of your awake time each work day spent on work-related activities.
That doesn’t even count the work-related activities that may spill over into the weekend (which, with the Internet and the increasing expectation that employees will always be “connected,” is becoming more and more likely).
So, let me repeat that once again:
In a typical work week, you’ll be spending about 70% of your waking hours doing work-related activities.
How do you think it will affect your psychological well-being if you’re doing a job you hate? Will it energize you or drain you? I can tell you from personal experience that doing work you do not enjoy is physically and emotionally draining.
So when you get home from work at the end of the day, rather than attack the rest of the day with enthusiasm and vigor, you’re likely to crash in your recliner and watch TV for a few hours before jumping into bed to catch some zzzz’s before you have to get up and do it all again.
When I was in my “I-hate-work” phase a few years ago, I did more than just crash on the couch and watch TV. I also yelled at my wife, my kids, and my dog. See, that’s another dirty secret: When you dislike your work, it often affects those around you just as much as it affects you. When I think back on that phase of my life, there’s something that really bothers me: It wasn’t fair to my wife or my kids to see me like that, to see me at less than my best.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has developed a theory called the broaden-and-build theory of emotions that explains what happens when you experience certain emotions repeatedly. Fredrickson’s theory suggests that emotions build on one another. When you experience positive emotions, they open you up to other positive experiences–which produces an upward spiral of good feelings.
But when you experience negative emotions such as anxiety or anger, they narrow your focus and put you in “survival” mode; that means you’re much more likely to lash out when something irks you.
So, let me ask you once again: If you’re spending 50 or 60 hours a week doing a job you hate, how do you think that’s going to affect your overall well-being? How likely is it that you’re going to love your life?
Nevertheless, let’s assume you’re able to muster up a bit of energy and have some fun on Friday and Saturday (if you’re able to stay away from doing weekend work). That’s all well and good, but when Sunday comes around, you’ll be dreading Monday. As I wrote previously, maybe one reason why so many people despise Mondays is because they’re doing work they hate.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of spending 70% of my waking hours on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays (and sometimes Saturdays or Sundays) doing work I hate isn’t the least bit appealing.
Oh, let’s do one more quick analysis. Let’s see what that adds up to over the course of the next 10 years (assuming you try to stick it out and make a career out of it).
According to Salary.com, most Americans get somewhere between two and three weeks of vacation time each year. Let’s be optimistic and assume that the average person is getting three full weeks. That means you’re going to be working 49 weeks per year.
I said earlier that work-related activities will probably take up about 11 or so hours of your day.
That’s 55 hours per week.
Or 2,695 hours per year.
Or 26,950 hours over the next 10 years.
That’s 26,950 hours of work you hate over the next 10 years!
Take a minute and let that number sink in a bit. What effect do you think that will have on your life? How do you think it will affect those around you? How motivated will you be to put in the time necessary to get really good at your job, to acquire the skills that you’ll presumably need to advance professionally?
To me, the evidence is pretty clear. If you’re currently in a major you hate, I think you should think twice about what that might mean for your life. I think you owe it to everyone you love to pick a major and a career that are going to make you happy (and, in fact, some psychologists have even suggested that doing work you love might actually cause you to make more money).
More importantly, though, don’t you owe it to yourself?
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