There is no shortage of research that points to the importance of finding meaning at work. It doesn’t just make us feel happier but we’re also healthier and more resilient. Employers benefit too when their teams find meaning. Employees stay in their jobs longer, put forth more effort, and perform better overtime.
What’s tricky is getting to the bottom of what is actually meaningful to us. This is understanding what aspects bring us satisfaction, curiosity, and some positive emotion. This doesn’t mean joy and happiness necessarily, it could mean contentment, appreciation, challenge, and gratitude. Uncovering what this is in our job is step one.
Then, once we know what it is, there is some really good news. It doesn’t require much time in our week to reap the benefits of doing meaningful work. In this study, researchers found that doctors who spent just 20% of their time on meaningful tasks were at less risk for burnout than those who didn’t. They also found a “ceiling effect” which meant that spending more than 20% didn’t yield any greater effects.
It’s reasonable to believe this applies to non-physician folks too. If you work a 40-hour week, just 8 hours need to be dedicated to work that is meaningful to you to get some benefits.
The struggle for most of us is that first step. Defining the tasks and activities that bring meaning.
We begin by defining what “meaning” is and why it matters followed by some tips to go out and find it.
What exactly is “meaning”?
The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania is home to some of the foremost authorities on wellbeing and human flourishing. They study what it means to live a good life. One of contentment, health (physical, mental, and emotional), high performance, and satisfaction. A “good life” does not mean an absence of negative emotion. On the contrary, negative emotions are a part of human experience. Rather, focusing on our wellbeing positions us to respond productively to the realities of life, which are often difficult, stressful, and in some cases traumatic.
There are five building blocks of wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. They make up the acronym PERMA, which has been addressed in this blog before.
Meaning, one of the building blocks, is about being connected to something bigger than ourselves. We find meaning by engaging in activities that contribute to our own definition of a greater good. This is important. This is not about someone else’s definition of the greater good, it is our own.
For example, a client of mine who is a physician loved to take a deep dive into journal articles and research. It nurtured his expertise and sparked new ideas for him. He always felt energized after spending an hour or two reading. Yet, he rarely took the time to do it feeling like any free time he had needed to be focused on his patients.
His colleagues often discussed how spending time with patients got at the true heart of their profession. Many discussions led to the message of being with patients was the most meaningful part of being a doctor. Certainly, this was the case for them. But it wasn't for him.
His patients often drained him. Reading refueled him. Creating time each day to read is how he connected to the most meaningful aspects of his work. This also meant letting go of what other people believed should be meaningful to him.
How to find meaning in our work
Understanding what meaning is helps pave the way to finding it. First and foremost, it requires dedicated time to think about it. Creating space to explore it helps the ideas come forward. Ask yourself the following and jot down some notes:
Where is there meaning in my work?
What inspires me?
What gives me energy?
Who do I prefer interacting with and what about those interactions is interesting, exciting, or thought-provoking?
The answers to these questions can point us toward the most meaningful activities at work.
That said, in some cases, particularly those that involve workplace burnout, this approach may not yield results. It’s not uncommon to struggle to find answers to the questions above when we are chronically overworked, fatigued, and feeling undervalued in our jobs.
It might be more helpful, then, to narrow focus to instances or meaningful moments, instead of trying to find it in the entire job or workplace.
Meaningful work often comes and goes. It might look like the small interactions with a respected coworker, hard-earned agreement after a lengthy debate, or the satisfaction in a clean, concise, and accurate report. You might even see it in the beauty of blooming flowers outside your window. Meaning can emerge from anywhere if you look for it and sometimes, finding it in small places is just what we need to get through a tough day.
The point here is to understand how important meaning is to a satisfying career as well as to our wellbeing. It’s about contributing to a greater good and one that we embrace or define. Not the definitions and expectations of others.
Then, by just reflecting on it we might be able to find it. Or, we might need to narrow our focus and expectations. Meaning in our work is fluid and, for many, not one, single career that will create it. Rather, it is a culmination of instances that are found when the conditions are right, and our focus is present.