If you have ever been stuck in a soul-destroying job, you’ll know that the angst, stress, and sheer unhappiness you may experience are things you would not wish on your worst enemy.
Meaningful Work Matters
Work plays such an important role in our lives and can greatly affect your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Unfortunately, most of us have been socialized to believe that work should be something difficult, stressful, and unfulfilling.
It almost seems like wishful thinking to seek work that builds into your life purpose. Work, after all, is just for income-generation purposes. It’s not something you derive a sense of happiness or well-being from, right?
In an overwhelmingly capitalist world, some may say it’s ‘easier’ just to put your head down, be thankful that you have a job in the first place, and just plow on.
However, it takes greater realization to understand that we are here on this earth to do more than just get by and await a silent retirement far off in the horizon.
We are here for much more. We are here to make an impact in our own little corner of the world. It is entirely possible for each of us to do this through our day-to-day work.
Are you at a point where you want to do work that gives you a deeper sense of meaning and purpose? In this article, you will learn the principles of meaningful work and how you can find work that will always fulfill you.
What Is Meaningful Work?
Humans are meaning-seeking beings. Whether you are a high-flying executive or a janitor, a teacher or a stay-at-home parent, we all want to experience a sense of fulfilment, purpose, meaning. We all want to feel that we are contributing in some way.
While we can derive meaning from various aspects of our lives, the work we do every day is a vital source of that sense of fulfillment we are all seeking.
The ability to generate an income not only gives us a sense of self-worth but more importantly, work allows us to attain self-actualization. Therefore, work is tied directly to our overarching sense of our place and purpose on earth.
So, what then does it mean to do meaningful work?
The answer is not simple because we all want different things and what seems meaningful to you might mean nothing to me, and vice versa.
However, we can agree, on the general scale of things, what makes work meaningful for most people.
The three prerequisites for meaningful work are:
- allows the expression of your best self
- lets you serve others and make a significant contribution
- rewards you fairly
Later in this guide, we will get into the nitty-gritty of these three aspects of meaningful work and how you can practice this in your own life.
In our quest for meaningful work, what we are essentially looking for is that deep-seated emotional spark that can only be described as satisfaction and fulfillment.
It is important to realize that doing work that is meaningful will not put you in a constant state of happiness. In fact, we should distinguish between happiness and meaning.
Meaning is Enduring
Happiness in itself is fleeting—it is here today and gone tomorrow. Meaning is enduring. Happiness, largely, depends on the existence of mostly positive external circumstances. Meaning bubbles quietly inside you even after the party lights are out, the sky is bleak, and things are tough.
In one interesting study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers sought to find out about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness.
Their study found that while a happy life and a meaningful life have some points of overlap, there are some differences. Satisfying your basic needs might increase your happiness but this does not contribute much to giving you a sense of meaning. 1
This is hardly surprising. Many of us do work that is able to meet our basic needs and wants such as food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment but we are still in search of that elusive feeling of meaning.
The researchers found that those who gave more than they took experienced higher levels of meaningfulness. Interestingly, what we consider non-happy experiences such as anxiety and stress were associated with contributing to a sense of higher meaning. This could probably be because the things that mean a lot to us can also cause us a great deal of worry and stress.
Should You Do Work That Makes You Happy?
Of course, you should! We all want to feel good about what we do on a daily basis. However, you will not be happy with all the aspects of your work, all the time; the external circumstances might not always be rainbows and butterflies, and this is where meaning comes in.
Deriving a sense of meaning (not just happiness) from your work will keep you going even when you have to deal with the not-so-happy parts of your work.
Three Prerequisites for Finding and Doing Meaningful Work
Earlier in the article, we found that meaningful work can be defined as:
- allows the expression of your best self
- lets you to serve others and make a significant contribution
- rewards you fairly
So, we will go step by step, exploring each definition and giving you practical tips to implement in your life today.
Find Work That Allows the Expression of Your Best Self
Meaningful work allows you to use your knowledge, strengths, and skills not just for the sake of checking items off the list but for serving others, even if it is in your own little way.
When you are expressing your best self, there is a strong sense of forward movement as well as personal growth and development.
Where work is concerned, there are several ways to become the best version of yourself and experience deep meaning.
Find Meaningful Work That Aligns with Your Skills
Human beings are naturally inclined to give their best, in terms of effort and time, to those things they are really good at or things that interest them the most.
Doing work that you are good at, work that allows you to utilize your skills and expertise, is rewarding and gives you a sense of achievement.
As businessman and investor Mark Cuban points out, people do not quit doing what they are good at. 2 This is because it feels good to be good at something, and this feel-good factor is what having a sense of meaning and purpose from the work you do is all about.
This does not mean that you should confine yourself to only doing work that you are already good at. You can, and indeed, you should consider exploring new areas. The real secret is finding work in which you have the potential to get good at.
Have you ever seen someone who was in their element? Better yet, can you recall a time when you were completely in your element? You were doing something you are good at and that you enjoy. Your best self was brought forward in those moments.
This is the power of doing work that aligns with your skills and strengths.
Find and Do Work That Serves Others
What do a priest and a firefighter have in common? At face value, probably nothing much but a closer look reveals that what these two people do primarily involves serving others.
Science now shows that the most satisfying jobs are those that involve protecting, educating, and caring for others. In other words, people who do work that serves others are likely to be happier and feel a greater sense of satisfaction. 3
Researchers have also found that people tend to be happier, more positive, and less depressed when they feel that their work is impacting others in a positive way.
At a basic level, we all know that money, status, and the splendid views from the corner office are nice to have. However, these things will not always make your job satisfying.
If you already have a job that offers these wonderful perks, you do not necessarily have to give it up. Instead, why not create opportunities to help others? How about making a positive contribution to others’ lives either in your current work position or outside of it?
A good place to start is by participating in volunteer activities that you care about. You will not even have to look around much to realize the numerous volunteer opportunities in your community.
The best part is that you can find many ways to use your professional skills, expertise, and experience to help community organizations make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Reframe Your Current Work
Sometimes, it might seem like you are in a dead-end job where you are not making any significant difference at all. Leaving your job in pursuit of another one is not practical for everyone.
So how do you find meaning in such circumstances? Should you just passively accept that this is your fate? Of course not.
It is possible to find meaning even when you feel like your work is insignificant. The way to do this is by trying to look at your job in a different light. So, let’s reframe your current work.
For example, if you are a waiter, you might feel like all you do is carry plates and deal with difficult customers. But what if you could see yourself as someone who helps others enjoy memorable dining experiences?
You can apply this technique to any job. By doing this you’ll see that you play an important role in the larger scheme of things. The meaning you derive from any situation depends on how you think about the situation in the first place.
Re-framing is not about denying reality. On the contrary, re-framing requires you to see reality for what it is. You can then either change this reality altogether or switch your perspective to achieve a better outcome.
In the context of finding meaningful work, you have two options: you can change jobs or you can change how you view your current job.
Find and Do Work That Rewards You Fairly
Money is a big reason why we work, why we choose certain jobs, and why we leave others. In many ways, money can improve your quality of life, level of happiness, and overall satisfaction.
However, you have probably come across people who make plenty of money. Yet, they are still dissatisfied with their life. You would think that since these people have the money equation figured out then things like fulfillment, meaning, and purpose would come easily to them.
What is happening here?
Studies into the question of money and happiness show that money can buy you happiness. But, only to a certain extent beyond which you will likely not feel any happier. 4 In other words, someone earning $200,000 a year is not necessarily happier than someone who earns $100,000 a year.
These findings tell us several things. First, doing work that pays you fairly can contribute greatly to your overall happiness. This is a worthwhile goal to pursue.
However, a rewarding job is more than just money. In fact, you stand to derive more meaning and satisfaction from a job with attractive non-monetary rewards. For example, greater autonomy, flexibility, and opportunities for creativity.
Ideas for doing work that rewards you fairly include taking on new roles at work, starting your own side projects, and asking for a flexible work arrangement where possible.
We are all in pursuit of a meaningful and purpose-driven life. The work we do contributes greatly to our ability to achieve this goal. Work does not have to be boring and an unpleasant necessity. Indeed, we can make it a source of spiritual, mental, and physical nourishment.
What is really great about doing meaningful work is that you do not necessarily have to quit your job. By identifying opportunities to serve others, seeking non-monetary rewards, and re-framing your reality, you can make your current work more meaningful than you thought possible.
- Baumeister, Roy F. et al. “Some Key Differences Between A Happy Life and A Meaningful Life”. The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol 8, no. 6, 2013, pp. 505-516. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/17439760.2013.830764. Accessed 6 Apr 2019.
- Hess, Abigail. “Stanford Researchers: ‘Follow Your Passion’ Advice Could Make You Less Successful”. CNBC, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/22/stanford-researchers-following-your-passion-makes-you-less-successful.html.
- Aaker, Jennifer, and Melanie Rudd. “How to Be Happy by Giving to Others”. Scientific American, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-be-happy-by-giving-to-others/.