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Three components of meaningful work

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Is your work meaningful?

Enjoying meaningful workMeaning (as in “meaning in life” or “meaningful work”) is obviously important. It’s important to a person for its own sake. It also affects other people—for example, it could be a motivational factor, affecting purpose, goals, and behavior. Most adults spend most of their waking hours working, so it’s important for people to find meaningful work, and to find more meaning in the work they’re currently doing.

A few psychologists are taking on the difficult task of using scientific methods to clarify the fuzzy topic of “meaning.” Michael F. Steger has done some research work in this area, and concludes that meaningful work has three, central components:

First, the work we do must make sense; we must know what’s being asked of us and be able to identify the personal or organizational resources we need to do our job.

Second, the work we do must have a point; we must be able to see how the little tasks we engage in build, brick-by-brick if you will, into an important part of the purpose of our company.

Finally, the work that we do must benefit some greater good; we must be able to see how our toil helps others, whether that’s saving the planet, saving a life, or making our co-workers’ jobs easier so that they can go home and really be available for their families and friends.

So, for our work to be meaningful we have to:

1. Understand what to do and how to do it

2. Know how the things we do fit into the larger picture

3. See how that creates a benefit for someone

A case can be made:

[a] that if people learn about the processes within their company or institution, they’re more likely to see how to do their jobs well, how it fits with what other workers are doing, and how the end product creates value, and

[b] that this can lead to a sense of meaning, which in turn makes people better at what they do.

Patrick McKnight and Todd Kashdan, in their theory of “purpose in life,” talk about “meaning” in the larger sense, pointing out that:

“Living in accord with one’s purpose…offers that person a self-sustaining source of meaning through goal pursuit and goal attainment” (p. 242).

A sense of purpose leads you to make goals and then reach them. And you recognize that it has meaning and value. Also,

“Meaning probably drives the development of purpose. Once a purpose becomes developed, purpose drives meaning.” (p. 243).

It works both ways – meaning and purpose feed each other. But probably mostly in the order McKnight and Kashdan identify.

Can this be applied more narrowly to the world of work? Once you know what to do, how it fits into the larger picture, and how that creates benefit, can the meaning you derive help give you a sense of purpose? With that sense of purpose can you then set and attain goals that give you a greater sense of meaning in your work?

“Purpose” has been a key research interest of mine, so I’ll certainly talk about it more in a future post, especially in light of its relationship to “meaning.”

Honorable, meaningful workI can’t help wondering if there are other things that could contribute to meaning in work. Often when you’re good at something, you like doing it more. I would think this could lead to a feeling that “this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” contributing to sense of meaning. Positive emotions are a better foundation than negative ones for broadening and building, and lead to more effectiveness in work.

Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, presents a similar idea—of these two intertwined factors contributing to meaning in work:

I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world…and being happy while doing it…. You have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile….  If either of these ingredients are absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work.

Then there’s the other intertwined, bi-directional dynamic:

  • Happier, more effective workers developing more of a sense of meaningfulness in their work, and
  • People who feel their work is meaningful becoming happier and more effective.

Michael F. Steger concludes:

A growing body of evidence shows that meaningful workers are happy workers, more committed workers, and, in some tantalizing ways, better workers.


Steger, Michael F. (2009). “Meaningful Work.” The Meaning in Life: Seeking a Life that Matters (Psychology Today blog) June 9, 2009.

McKnight, Patrick E. & Kashdan, Todd B. (2009). “Purpose in Life as a System That Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory.” Review of General Psychology. American Psychological Association. September 2009, Vol. 13, No. 3, 242–251.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008). “Creativity, fulfillment and flow.” TED Talks (Conference on Technology, Education, and Design). October 24, 2008.

Three strategies for being happier at work or school

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Are you like the guy in the commercial who has a parrot who repeats “Not another day.” “Can’t take this.”? If you don’t like your job, or school, or whatever you spend most of your day doing, there are several actions you can take other than complaining.

Making a big change

One possibility is to find a new job. This may take courage. Also, if you’re considering a different kind of work (or even a different work environment), it might be better to try out your new idea first by getting some experience with that new kind of work through volunteering, or by getting a part-time job without quitting your old job. If nothing along these lines is practical, find out whatever you can about the new work situation first before taking the leap. You don’t want to find out the hard way that the new situation is even worse!

Making a small change

What if it’s not a reasonable option to change jobs, or you really don’t want to for some reason? In that case you might look for ways you can transform your work situation so it gives you more satisfaction. People are happier in their work if they can be fully engaged, if they’re using their personal strengths, and if they feel like they’re making a contribution. There may be some changes you can make – or request to have made – that allow you to do these things more. If you’re bored, if you’re not able to use your abilities very fully, try taking on something more challenging, either by requesting it or by just voluntarily doing it even if you don’t have to. You may find that work becomes more fulfilling, and side benefits may include more interesting and higher-paying jobs in the future.

If you can figure out a way to do your work more efficiently and free up some of the time you saved as a result, you might be able to do something else worthwhile, either for your employer or for yourself.

Making an extracurricular change

Another option is to approach your happiness at work from the other side: Doing things outside of work that make you happier may cause some of that positive frame of mind to spill over into your work life. At the very least, it should increase your overall happiness. Just like a good vacation can rejuvenate you, a hobby or some activity you enjoy can put you in a better mood not only when you’re actually doing it, but afterward. Especially if you haven’t figured out a way yet to make your work more satisfying, make room in your life for some activity you really like.

For me the last few years that’s mainly been ballroom dance (broadly defined, including West Coast Swing, Argentine Tango, and especially Latin). It’s great because it’s good exercise (I’m a bit over 6′ tall but I went from a 35″ waist to 32″ and got more toned), there’s a social element that’s even friendlier than in most shared activities, it involves music, encourages creativity, and is a lot of fun. It’s also good for your brain: it facilitates mind-body coordination, cultivates bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and gives your gray matter a workout through learning new dance figures and details of technique. I’ll write more about this in a future post. I’ve even participated during this time in large regional, national, and international DanceSport competitions, working my way up through 6 levels to Pre-champ Latin finalist.

As a teenager I really got into chess (and other strategy games) and played in tournaments. Next I took up guitar, and got good enough to briefly consider a career as a musician (they do have very high job satisfaction). In each case these activities were challenging and rewarding, a learning experience and fun. They allowed me to immerse myself and be fully engaged, experiencing sometimes what psychologists call “flow.”

Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths

Harvard psychology professor Tal Ben-Shahar encourages people to begin the process of finding the right work for themselves by asking three crucial questions: What gives me meaning?” “What gives me pleasure?” “What are my strengths?” Looking at the answers and finding areas of overlap may help. He recommends taking more time than just jotting down what comes to mind. In terms of what we find meaningful, for instance, he suggests: “We may need to spend time reflecting, thinking deeply to recall those moments in our lives when we felt a sense of true purpose.”

While this exercise is intended to guide a person in making a major career decision, it can be applied to the all three strategies above for increasing happiness. Extracurricular activities that people find meaningful, for example, can be very rewarding and nourishing.