How Psychedelics Can Affect People’s Career Choices and Attitudes Towards Work

psychedelic trips, career choices, and attitudes towards work

An underexplored effect of psychedelics is how their use can affect both the career choices someone makes and the attitudes they have towards work in general. The LSD guru Timothy Leary famously told a countercultural audience – 30,000 hippies who gathered at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1967 – to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” This phrase has since become associated with taking psychedelics and dropping out of society (including abandoning traditional jobs). However, in his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks: A Personal and Cultural History of an Era, Leary spoke out against this misrepresentation of the phrase:

“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you—externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily, my explanations of this sequence of personal development are often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.

Yet despite Leary clarifying the true meaning of his words, the image of the work-shy, layabout hippie has become stuck in the public imagination. I’m reminded here of Season 3, Episode 3 of the British sitcom Peep Show – ‘Shrooming’ – where Super Hans’s girlfriend (played by Jessica Claire) tries to reassure Big Suze (played by Sophie Winkleman) that there is no need to be afraid of the magic mushroom trip she was about to embark on: “Don’t worry. Tripping changed my life. Before I did shrooms, I was stuck at HSBC, doing the nine to five.” After this, Super Hans says to his girlfriend, “Now you’ve got your room at the centre, and you’re making your masks.”

As well as the notion of psychedelic users becoming work-shy, there is the stereotype (which is true, in some cases) that psychonauts give up (or avoid) a traditional career path and focus on creative or spiritually minded pursuits that don’t really lead to a financially or materially stable life. The Peep Show scene satirises this link between psychedelic use and particular life choices. However, for many people, psychedelics lead to careers that are both fulfilling and financially secure. The late spiritual teacher Ram Dass urged the spiritually inclined, “Just because you are seeing divine light, experiencing waves of bliss, or conversing with Gods and Goddesses is no reason to not know your zip code.” ‘Knowing your zip code’ can be interpreted broadly, standing for living life in a practical, responsible, and successful way.

In this piece, I would like to offer a less stereotypical picture of the relationship between psychedelics and jobs. There is even research now on how the use of these compounds can affect not just the kind of work we do but also how we work, which may indicate alterations in attitudes towards work.

Increased Focus on Meaning and Purpose

The philosopher Chris Letheby has argued in a piece for Psyche that psychedelics can lead to spirituality by encouraging us to explore existential questions related to meaning and purpose. Since work takes up so much time in our lives, it is often considered an existential issue. The existential dimension of work also relates to how our career enhances (or doesn’t enhance) personal meaning and purpose. Even if the subject of your career path is not something you specifically want to explore in a psychedelic trip, it may still arise. This is because we all have a fundamental concern for genuine meaning and purpose in our lives. Psychedelics can bring this concern to the surface.

Psychedelics can make us question whether we are on the right path, which often involves the kind of work we’re doing. We may realise, in a more visceral and conclusive manner, that our current careers are antithetical to our well-being, personality, values, goals, and needs. As well as showing us what is out of step with our sense of authentic self, psychedelics may also reveal the kind of path that is aligned with who we are deep down.

The psychedelic experience can bring into focus what kinds of values, motivations, and actions are most connected to meaning and purpose, which may – during the trip itself or later, upon further reflection – be related to a specific kind of career. Moreover, one’s current career or a career one would want to avoid can appear devoid of meaning and purpose if it involves tedium; a toxic work culture; disconnection from others; and the promise of increased responsibilities, earnings, and career advancement that is not matched by the ability to be of service to others. If psychedelics magnify latent aspects of ourselves – who we fundamentally are and what we fundamentally need – then their use may evoke insights and images related to a career full of personal meaning and purpose.

Because people often feel radically transformed and improved following psychedelic use, this may incentivise them to dedicate their career to psychedelics, so that others can benefit from these altered states. The psychedelic industry has grown massively in the past decade, so there are plenty of careers available, spanning research, education, therapy, nursing, journalism, content creation, business, and PR.

The psychedelic researcher Ido Hartogsohn has noted that “mystical-type experiences and insights obtained on psychedelics subjectively appear more significant than comparable non-psychedelically induced experiences and insights by virtue of the meaning-enhancing action of these drugs.” This would mean that if we have insights about what is wrong with our current career and what is right about a career we could potentially have in the future, these insights can take on a significance and authority that they would lack if they arose in a sober state of mind. 

Of course, we should always be careful about immediately trusting psychedelic insights, as they can sometimes be false and maladaptive. This is why it’s important not to make any rash decisions after a psychedelic experience (such as quitting one’s job). Insights should always be interpreted and analysed. A decision that feels ‘right’ may not necessarily be wise, sensible, or pragmatic.

Increases in Openness to Experience

Both the therapeutic and recreational use of psychedelics are associated with lasting elevations in the personality trait openness (or openness to experience). This is a trait that involves being imaginative, creative, inventive, aesthetically sensitive, open to new and unusual ideas, attracted to adventure, and non-conforming. Given that psychedelic use can significantly increase this trait and maintain this increase in the long term, it is no surprise that many people would feel motivated to change careers after just a single profound psychedelic experience.

With the aspects of openness to experience in mind, someone who takes psychedelics may decide to pursue a career path that is more creative, artistic, intellectually stimulating, or non-traditional. The increased sense of curiosity and adventure following psychedelic use may encourage someone to seek out a career that allows them to explore new places and meet new people. So psychedelics may not only attract someone to a more creative career, but it could also motivate them to seek ways of working (e.g. remote, contract, or freelance work) that give them more freedom to travel and live in different countries.

A Greater Priority Placed on Personal Well-Being

The therapeutic benefits of psychedelics lie in their potential to stimulate and accelerate self-healing. They can help shift people away from negative self-beliefs and disconnection (towards oneself, others, and the world), towards feelings of worthiness and connection. Psychedelics can increase feelings of self-compassion, which results in a wish for oneself to be well, free from suffering, peaceful, and happy. This may help explain why psychedelic compounds like psilocybin can lead to positive lifestyle changes, including maintaining a balanced diet, being physically active, and refraining from smoking.

But our careers are also part of our lifestyle, and they can be healthy or unhealthy. If psychedelics have the potential to promote healthy behaviour change, then their use could motivate someone to give up a career marked by stress and overwork and seek out a career that allows for a work-life balance. 

Psychedelic Use is Linked to Reduced Overtime Hours Worked

Related to the last point, a paper published this year in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that the use of psilocybin mushrooms is linked to reduced overtime work among full-time employees. While these findings aren’t conclusive proof of causation (the results are correlational), they may nonetheless shed light on how psychedelic use can influence our work habits, including ‘quiet quitting’.

Quiet quitting refers to a phenomenon where employees increasingly prioritise work-life balance over excessive work. Instead of going above and beyond what their job duties require of them, these employees fulfil their basic responsibilities and are reluctant to work overtime. This trend is driven by a desire to pay more attention to personal well-being and family relationships. It is a trend most noticeable in the United States, which is well known for having a culture of overwork (American workers typically put in 400 more hours on the job every year compared to their counterparts in Germany).

Interestingly, Benjamin A. Korman (the study’s author) discovered that the link between psychedelic use and reduced overtime hours worked held true for psilocybin but not for other classic psychedelics like LSD and mescaline/peyote.

Eric W. Dolan at PsyPost points out

These findings carry significant implications, especially in the context of the ongoing discussions about the decriminalization and legalization of psilocybin in various parts of the United States. While it might seem that reduced overtime work could be costly for organizations, it is also possible that employees who have used psilocybin may be more productive during their regular work hours, reducing the need for overtime to complete tasks.

It’s worth emphasising that the connection the study establishes is correlational and not causal. So we don’t know for certain if or how psilocybin reduces overtime hours worked. This means the reasons why psilocybin may be linked to such an effect are unknown. Dolan, however, writes:

Future research could delve deeper into this intriguing connection. It could explore whether psilocybin-induced changes in mindfulness, connectedness, and nature-relatedness mediate the effect on overtime hours worked. Further studies could also investigate the long-term effects of different classic psychedelics, as their impacts may vary.

In any case, this study may hint at how psychedelics can alter people’s attitudes towards work. The experiences they provide can involve profound and lasting shifts in what values we prioritise, which has ripple effects in myriad aspects of our lives, including our careers.

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