Janel Kragt Bakker, Associate Director of the Collegeville Institute, interviewed Matt Bloom about his research on well-being at work as Associate Professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. Matt is a member of the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan. This interview took place during the Seminar’s 2013 meeting on the vocation of the elderly. Read Part One of the interview here.
What’s the interface between your role as a social scientist and the theology of vocation you’re exploring in the Seminar at the Collegeville Institute? How do these two areas of interest and passion merge?
Being a part of the Seminar has blessed me professionally in ways that I don’t think I could do justice to. This notion of well-being at work requires multiple perspectives—just the scientific perspective alone won’t help us to understand it or help people in their well-being. I’ve appreciated having theologians and philosophers who have engaged in deep thought about these experiences and are willing to wrestle with the more difficult questions. So that part has been really extraordinary: it’s enriched the frameworks that I can use and bring to my research.
Being in the Seminar helps me to step my out of my own mindset to think from broader perspective, which allows me to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise. Science doesn’t provide the kinds of tools or resources that people will need to find meaning in their work—they’ll need a richer and different experience that theology can help inform.
What kind of work are you doing as a Seminar and what are you finding about vocation across the lifespan?
It’s wonderful to be a part of a group that will accept chaos and uncertainty and mystery even as we feel like we’re moving towards deeper understanding. Part of the reason we’ve looked at vocation across the lifespan is because we knew this is incredibly complex. For example, we’re talking about the elderly now. We’ll read deeply about the elderly, then we’ll get together and talk about this stage of life. What are the characteristics of this stage of life? What are the unique challenges and opportunities? What does vocation or calling look like at this stage?
We’re trying to understand if there are some universals of vocation that extend across the lifespan, and what are the unique expressions of vocation. What are the factors that help people to either experience vocation or prevent them from experiencing vocation? We probably would say we have a lot more questions now than when we started, but I feel like we’re close to arriving at some insights.
What have you learned so far in your social scientific research on well-being across the lifespan?
One of the things I have learned is that well-being is a fundamental human need. It isn’t selfish—although it can be pursued in selfish ways. We tend to divide well-being into two big chunks. One is a sense of meaning and purpose in living a noble life. The other piece we often call happiness: experiencing positive moods and emotions.
Research tells us that daily happiness is important. That doesn’t mean that periods of grief and suffering are bad for us; they are a part of life and there is much richness that comes from experiencing them. But this research says that if the rhythm of our life is characterized by negative moods and emotions, then that is not good for us. To have theological perspectives that complement and reinforce that perspective—that help us understand that abundant life is a basic human need—has been really wonderful.
Today we talked about the elderly and how certain social mores or expectations can make the pursuit of well-being or the experience of well-being in the elderly years more difficult. Our society’s worship of youth, for example, can diminish older people’s well-being because as a society we tend to suggest that older bodies are repugnant. Society owns some part of each individual’s well-being. It is fundamentally interconnected.
On a personal level, what do you find meaningful about your work?
I feel blessed to be trying to help others experience life and work in a richer and more fulfilling way. I feel very privileged that the organizations that we are working with—the Lily Endowment and all of the people the Lily Endowment puts us in contact with—can help us see our research turn into practice.
Something that I hadn’t anticipated is how meaningful it is to hear individuals’ stories and narratives. Each time we hear an interview, somebody is giving us the rich gift of their life. That is extraordinary—seeing the way that individuals can find and make meaning in work that would be very difficult for me. It is amazing to see how resilient people are. The grace that people bring into their work is profound and reminds me of the best that we see in people in these difficult situations.
It is a privilege to be part of a project in which we can aspire to something—like wanting to help make everyone’s work experience life-enriching—and to not have people say that it is ridiculous. Even though we know that it is something much bigger than our project and probably bigger than our lifespans, it is wonderful to be a part of aspiring to such a big dream and be considered seriously by others in that pursuit.
My research on work has certainly changed the way that I interact with anybody in their work. Anytime that I am interacting with someone in their work, I am thinking about our research and wondering how my interaction with them is shaping their own experience, happiness, and meaning in that moment. I hope I am a better customer, a better patient, or a better passenger on an airline because I think of work in that way.
Click here to read Part One of the interview with Matt Bloom.
Listen to the full interview: http://collegevilleinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/edited-interview-with-MattBloom.mp3