What does it mean to do meaningful work? When polling Americans what they want out of life, two of the more frequent answers you may hear are “happiness” and “money.” But there’s a large (and growing) body of research which shows that pursuing either of these goals narrow-mindedly can be counterproductive.
Becoming wealthy doesn’t typically increase our happiness. Spending money on valuable experiences or time-saving purchases can improve our moods, but since making money also requires takes, it can be a complicated cycle. Often times, we may actually be more likely to discover evidence of happiness when we’re not looking. Creating expectations to enjoy a piece of music or have a great time on New Year’s Eve, can actually lessen feelings of happiness.
If money and happiness aren’t particularly useful goals, what are? Many social scientists say one answer may be having a life that includes meaningful work.
“Within the humanities, it is usually agreed that the quest for meaning is a universal human motive, and they view loss of meaning as a psychological deprivation or even disorder,” according to ethics and business scholars Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Lani Morris.
Religious and moral philosophers from Confucius to Martin Luther have considered work to be a crucial aspect of a full and meaningful life. Neal Chalofsky, a researcher at George Washington University who studies meaning in the workplace, reports that American workers, particularly young ones, are embracing the idea of meaningful work even more than earlier generations.
“What we’re seeing … is that millennials want to do more in society—they don’t want to wait,” he said. “My generation said ‘when we’re in our later years we’ll give back.’ [Millennials] want to do something significant now.”
Chalofsky recognizes that the definition of significance is a highly personal one. Some people draw on religious beliefs, seeking work that lines up with what they may view as a spiritual calling. Others talk about pursuing a passion, fulfilling a purpose, or contributing to a cause larger than themselves.
The kind of work that can be meaningful to each of us depends on our interests and personalities. Someone who prefers to have a set routine each day probably won’t find deep meaning in traveling overseas to help communities respond to famines and floods, even if they see enormous value in that work. It could be more meaningful to support emergency workers behind the scenes, processing expense reports and writing up organizational budgets. On the other hand, an artist who loves to work may still feel a lack of meaning if pieces sell as an investment or token rather than a source of joy.
How can you tell if you’ve found meaningful work? You might explore the Work and Meaning Inventory developed by psychologists Michael F. Steger, Bryan J. Dik, and Ryan D. Duffy. Statements in the WAMI include several regarding a subjective sense of meaning, like “I understand how my work contributes to my life’s meaning” and “I view my work as contributing to my personal growth.” And, how work functions as part of a full life: “My work helps me make sense of the world around me” and “My work helps me better understand myself.” Another set of statements relate to helping others, including “I know my work makes a positive difference in the world” and “The work I do serves a greater purpose.”
Still, Chalofsky warns against taking objective measures too seriously when considering something as individual as finding meaning. For people wanting to figure out the types of work that may bring a greater sense of purpose, he suggests exploring interests as soon as possible. Pursue an internship or volunteer in a field you might like, and then listen to your gut.
Another part of finding meaning in work involves how it fits into our lives. Even a job where you can do work you love and accomplish great things can become a draining mess if doesn’t leave time for other parts of life. For some people, a less meaningful job can be a worthwhile tradeoff that allows additional time for doing meaningful but unpaid work like parenting or volunteering.
There are also types of work that may not seem meaningful from the outset but becomes fulfilling over time. A traditional office job can also offer a chance to form bonds and emotionally support coworkers. A school janitor might become a source of guidance and act as a confidant for the children they see every day.
Chalofsky describes a housekeeper at a halfway house who began quietly bringing in new curtains and bedspreads for the residents’ rooms. “She wasn’t just cleaning—she was making this stuff, or buying this stuff to beautify the house,” he said. “There’s story after story like this about people who make meaning out of what might be boring or meaningless to others.”
Artwork by KYLE BECK