Downton Abbey attracted a massive following for many reasons—gripping plotlines, extraordinary character development, the window it opened into a fascinating place and time. The show explored themes that are just as poignant today as they were in the early 20th century, like the inevitable (but complicated) drumbeat of progress, the experience of alienation and belonging based on social class and changing social norms, the wonders of family relationships, building a future in the face of loss, and so on. Most viewers probably find themselves drawn to the themes that most resonate with their current concerns. I’m no different, which is why, as a vocational psychologist, I found the themes related to vocation and meaningful work on the show to be both striking and compelling.
I am confessing my ignorance of history when I say that early on I was rather befuddled by the lifestyle carried out by the Ladies and Lords of Grantham. I kept asking, “What do they actually do”? At one point Lord Grantham described Downton as his “life’s work,” and I couldn’t quite figure out what he meant, since from what I could tell he hadn’t done anything to earn it and wasn’t doing a lot (economically speaking) to maintain it. I really liked the Crawleys, but it seemed that the general point of their existence was to function as a family of socialites, keep servants employed, and maintain traditions that preserved their privileges.
That began to shift when Matthew and Isabelle Crawley joined the family, infusing their middle-class pragmatism into Downton’s status quo. It shifted more rapidly with the onset of World War I, when Downton was used as a convalescent home for casualties of war. Lady Sybil threw herself into the effort by training as a nurse and pursuing a purpose as a caregiver with grace and gusto. Later, when Matthew Crawley began looking at Downton’s books, he charted out a path toward leveraging the estate’s untapped revenue potential, with the help of Tom Branson, the chauffer/mechanic-turned-land agent.
But it was during the sixth and final season of the show when themes of vocation really came together, embodied in several of the show’s characters. The most poignant examples of this were revealed in episode three. In this one episode, Lady Edith gleefully asserts, after an all-nighter to hit a deadline at the magazine she was running, that “I know now I need a purpose.” Mr. Molesley, the tough-luck footman-turned-tutor, responded to a question about missing his vocation with, “I’ve missed everything!” And Branson returned to Downton after a trial run in America, during which he concluded that the people that surround him are every bit as important as blazing his own vocational trail. By season’s end, Edith’s magazine was a thriving enterprise, Mr. Molesley was embarking on a career as a teacher, and Tom was about to launch an automobile empire with his new brother-in-law, Henry Tolbert. Add to that Lady Cora’s breakout performance in hospital management, footman Andy’s transition to farming, Mrs. Patmore’s new bed and breakfast venture, and Thomas Barrow’s good fortune in landing Downton’s butler position, and the theme of “career renaissance” becomes impossible to ignore.
Vocational psychology and management research tells us that people who feel they are living their calling are more satisfied, committed, and engaged in their work—and find it more meaningful—than do people with other ways of thinking about their careers. Not only that, but people with callings report that life as a whole is more satisfying and meaningful than do people who think of their work in other ways. Downton’s final episode was rich with happily-ever-afters—new marriages, good health news, the miracle of birth, joyful reunions, everything brimming with promise. But as we bid goodbye to these beloved characters, we did so feeling like their futures would be bright with possibility because each character had finally found his or her calling and, with it, a sense of purpose.
And in life as in fiction, it is purpose that opens the most rewarding pathways toward meaningful engagement with the world.