The 3 choices we must make to find Meaning in Work.
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Work takes up such a large part of our lives, it only makes sense that we should find purpose in it. However, why does it seem like such a struggle to do so?
Why do some people have such Meaningful careers and others don't?
We are all deeply envious of our friends who seem to have found meaning in their work.
"I love my job. I really wouldn't want to do anything else", they tell us.
Compared to us dragging our feet to a job we dislike everyday, these friends seem full of fervor and a zest for life. They seemed to have reached a higher level in life, while we ourselves are slowly burning out and becoming like dead seaweed on a beach.
In the search for Meaning, many of us have come to equate this with some sort of dream or aspiration we have. This sounds like the below:
If only I can land my dream job, then I know that my life will be more meaningful.
My goal is to make lots of money and get financial independence. Then I will have to freedom to do what I really want to do in life.
I need a job where I know I'm being useful. To make me feel like I matter.
In a previous article, What is the Meaning of life and how is it different from Following your Dreams?, I share that there's nothing wrong with seeking out your dreams or aspirations.
However, if we just follow our dreams for the sake of Me, Myself, and I, we won't find any meaning there.
What is Meaning according to Psychology?
It's a really big question, and many well-known psychology researchers have tackled this. From Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust Survivor turned Psychologist to Martin Seligman, who founded the Positive Psychology movement at the turn of the century.
They've come to an unanimous agreement as to what Meaning is comprised of: It is the intention to achieve a long-term goal that is both personally Meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world.
By the founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman's own definition, Meaning is about belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.
It transcends the self.
This is the reason why simply following our aspirations or dreams might still not give us purpose. Even with more money, and getting into a job we like a bit more than our previous one, we still can't seem to find purpose in our work that adds to our lives. After that, it's off to seeking the next aspiration.
Our biggest mistake in this endeavour is that we only focused on ourselves and failed to look beyond.
How have people found Meaning in Work?
For some people, serving something that transcends the self comes easily. There are obviously certain vocations that are more primed for this.
For example, doctors and surgeons who want to save people's lives, certain lawyers (definitely not all) that want to help the underprivileged, and social workers who want to make people's lives better.
My brother is a Christian Pastor. It took a freak accident in the sky to for him to realise his calling. He was flying back home one day from Australia when the engines on the plane he was on abruptly stopped functioning. For the next few minutes, the plane plummeted towards the earth. In his mind, he knew this was it. The only thing he knew how to do then, was to pray.
By some miracle, the engines roared back to life and the plane ascended again to a safe altitude. Whether or not it was due to his prayers, he knew he was saved by God and that it was his Purpose to serve the Christian faith, and help other people understand and know his God better.
Thankfully, it shouldn't take such a similar life-threatening event for you to realise your Meaning in life.
Yet if you're in a job that is desk-bound, perhaps in a financial institution or a profit-oriented company, finding that link between what you do and impacting people's lives isn't going to be obvious.
Ask yourself: What is it that you truly value?
Deep inside of you, there are very specific things that you deeply care about and want to leave your mark, in your own particular way.
It doesn't have to be a work of grandeur, like in Bill Gates seeking to cure the world of Poverty. It might even be as simple as devoting your time to see your loved ones, your children, or your friends flourish and prosper in their lives.
It's all about your values, and values come in all shapes and sizes.
Let's say you care about travel and adventure, you might then find Meaning in sharing and enriching other people's lives through your travels. Be it sharing recommendations through a travel blog, or actually getting to know and helping the people you meet abroad. The matter in which you do so is entirely up to you.
If you really care about creativity and helping people see things differently, find your creative outlet. Start writing that book, or creating that youtube movie you've always wanted to. Start that podcast for the audience you want to impact.
The same goes for starting a new business. If you're just in it for the money, you're starting off on the wrong foot. Instead, think about what it is about the world that you truly care about, and how your business can help people's lives.
Values are your life's compass. When we work on things that you care about each and everyday, and know that you're changing peoples lives, whether in a small or big way, you've started to find your Meaning in life.
By the way, if you aren't too sure what your values are, do check out this article A 15-minute activity to reconnect with your true self.
Meaning as your life's compass
Applying your Meaning to your work.
For some of us who currently work in jobs like in a bank, retail or other desk-bound office jobs, it might be darn bloody hard to see any immediate impact of our actions on people's lives. I know this well, I've spent a year and more hating my job and struggling to see the point of it.
No matter what it is, we are letting ourselves down by not allowing our Meaning to flourish.
"Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.” Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.
There are then three choices you can take from here in regards to finding meaning at work:
1. Find a way to link your Meaning to your current work.
Take for example you find great pleasure in seeing people happy. How can you bring more of this to your work? You could be a pastry chef that just trudges to work everyday, cursing to yourself as you roll the dough. Or instead, one that seeks to make people happy by creating the most beautiful pastries.
A change in perception can make a significant difference.
The book Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar shares a research conducted by Wrzesniewski and Dutton about hospital cleaners. They found that one group of cleaners experienced their work as boring and meaningless, while a second group perceived the same work as engaging and meaningful.
The difference in the second group was that they saw their jobs in a broader context, where they were engaged in interactions with patients that made the patients feel better and with nurses to brighten up their days.
The researchers saw the same patterns amongst hairdressers, information technicians, nurses, kitchen employees and so on.
In the Singaporean context, we can easily think of these as mundance, blue collar jobs. However, a Hospital Cleaner that sees his or her role as one that helps people, might find far more joy and meaning in it than a Surgeon who treats his job purely mechanically.
How we perceive our work matters a lot more than the work itself. Likewise, can you craft Meaning into your current work?
2. Find another job that allows you to fulfill your meaning.
Let's say you really care about the environment and climate change, but you work in a Charcoal producing factory in Jurong. What on good earth's name are you doing there sia?
Sometimes, our work is in direct contradiction to the things we care about. If that's the case, it's time to move on.
More probably, this line isn't so black or white and you can't seem to find a way to craft your current work to have more meaning.
For example, you care a whole deal about being creative, but you work as an accountant. Well, creative accounting might be a real thing, but definitely something you want to stay away from (legally speaking).
You then have to think about how important it is for you to live your values of being creative, and if it's something you want to do with your spare time, or as a full-time endeavour.
If it's the latter, prepare to make sacrifices. It might mean a pay cut or starting out in a more junior position. I personally know a number of people who've made this leap to pursue their purpose of being Creative, such as in content writing and even starting a podcast. Others have gone on to work in churches, charities or to start their own business.
It's absolutely nothing short of admirable.
However, if this is not something you're willing to risk, then perhaps your first steps might be to try it out with your spare time.
3. Finding Meaning outside of your work.
This might be a balance between the above two scenarios, but don't be fooled into thinking it's a compromise.
Meaning is not a construct marked by a singular title.
In regard to myself, I am not just some dude who writes a blog on Happiness to help people.
I'm also a husband who wants to see his wife live her best life; a son who loves and wants his parents to be happy, a proud dog owner who wants it to go on the very best walks, and a full-time behavioural data scientist who really finds pleasure in helping people improve their programming and data appreciation skills.
Our lives are a portfolio of all the things we find personally meaningful, and all the ways we affect the people around us. It is the sum of all our endeavours.
For many people, they find Meaning simply in seeing their friends and loved ones flourish. Work becomes a means to support that, and that's entirely okay. That is, if it makes you happy.
Yet, if you're someone that who feels you absolutely need to work on something that your current job doesn't allow, why not start with your leisure time?
“Those who have a ‘Why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘How’.” Viktor E. Frankl
There are plenty of people who have day jobs but use their time for something bigger than themselves. Be it in a charity, a religious organisation, volunteering, being a wedding photographer, politics, a social club, starting a blog, or pursuing an aspiration with a clear purpose of impacting others.
Why not start living your life's meaning today?
Who knows, what could start as a part time hobby might eventually pivot into a full time endeavour one day.
Thanks for reading and I hoped you found this article insightful. Please do share and like this article so we can help others find their Meaning. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or send me an email if you've any questions!