Jerome is desperate. He drags himself to his office job every day, the one he’s had for 4 years now. He clocks in at 9, and starts doing client calls until 12. He then take a half-hour lunch break, followed by a team meeting, and then more client calls until 5. The same old job, the same routine, and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness deep inside. He doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, he just feels no sense of meaning to it all. Oh, it’s a good job, pays the bills, but he’s just so unhappy. He increasingly found himself drawing pictures in his coffee instead of doing his work, and his performance reviews suffered. He was worried about being laid off!
That’s when he came to me to get some advice on finding greater meaning and purpose in his job. He didn’t want to change the job itself, he just wanted to change his way of feeling and thinking about the job. Having read my book, Find Your Purpose Using Science, he thought I’d be the man for the job.
So I told him about some of the research-based strategies for finding meaning and purpose in one’s work that I described in an earlier blog post. Namely, I described how to connect his personal goals and aspirations to his everyday tasks at work.
I then told him about two additional broad strategies, using myself as an example. He was really excited about all three, and he and I brainstormed about how he can apply them to his workplace. He called me a month later, telling me how much better he felt – he really appreciated learning about them, and was actually looked forward to coming to work. Since he and others benefitted from those strategies, I want to share them with you.
So what are these strategies?
Try building community spirit and social bonds through your work.
Plenty of studies indicate that community and social bonds contribute strongly to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The scientific literature shows this applies to work as to any other sphere of life.
In my own role at Intentional Insights, I strive to create opportunities to engage with fellow participants on projects together, and to collaborate in a positive and supportive manner. Collaborating around mutually exciting projects in a positive manner is one way of building social bonds in the workplace.
Moreover, I make sure to regularly meet with InIn participants where we talk about topics not directly related to our mutual work, but to other things going on in our lives. Doing so helps enrich the professional relationship and turn it into a deeper and more meaningful one, where both people feel supported by the other. Likewise, I occasionally organize social events where all InIn participants can gather to socialize, especially to celebrate important organizational accomplishments.
You can do some of the same in your own work. Most types of work provide opportunities to work with others on mutual projects together, and you can do your part to be a great team player who supports and encourages others.
Likewise, set up meetings with coworkers and talk about things related not only to work, but also to life as a whole. While an increasing number of people work from home, video-conference calls can provide an opportunity to both collaborate on work projects and talk about non-work topics.
I can do that! Now, what’s the other strategy?
Engage in serving others through your work.
Social service to others is one of the keystones of greater meaning and purpose in life, as numerous studies reveal. Research specifically on the workplace has found that the same concept applies to work as well as to anything else. So I and my fellow InIn participants are lucky ducks, as the organization by its very nature is oriented toward helping our audience have better lives. Furthermore, one of our key principles is to coach and mentor each other, which both builds social bonds and serves others.
It is important, however, to reflect occasionally on how I specifically help others have a better life. To do so, I and other Intentional Insights participants collect quotes from emails, blog comments, and other sources where people express gratitude to the organization for helping them, and share these with each other. I encourage a work culture where we highlight and celebrate mutual accomplishments in helping our audience members improve their lives.
In meetings, have everyone praise someone else there” or something.
Let’s say you have a 9-5 job that does not explicitly serve others, what then? No worries! Every job helps somebody somehow. Think about the social value you provide. What is it about what you do that helps others have better lives? Journal about it, and collect any positive feedback provided from others about your work. Take steps to solicit such feedback, since some workplaces don’t have optimal systems to provide it. Don’t ask for direct compliments, but ask people for their frank assessment of how you are doing, both your strengths and your weaknesses. Look for both formal and informal opportunities to support and coach others in your workplace.
Likewise, see if your workplace has service projects like building homes through Habitat for Humanity, volunteering in a soup kitchen, etc. Also, remember that the salary you earn at your work can be donated to charity, and many employers offer matching contributions. Effective Altruism identifies the most effective charities by using well-reasoned, evidence-based evaluations. Such civic engagement can help you find greater meaning and purpose in your work by serving others outside the direct context of your work. Again, to cultivate the deepest sense of life purpose, keep a journal and reflect on the positive impact you’ve had on others.
So how do I know this stuff is working for me?
Great question! I developed the Meaning and Purpose Questionnaire (MPQ), a research-informed tool used to quantify your own sense of purpose in every area. Then it customizes a science-based strategy to your personal search for purpose. Take that questionnaire with a focus on your work activities, and work on any areas that you might find are lacking.
What if my supervisor doesn’t want me to do meaning-making activities at work?
Yeah, I hear you. Some supervisors don’t yet realize the benefits for employee mental and physical health and wellbeing that comes from a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their work. First off, I’d suggest you talk to them about the research on this topic, for example as summarized in this article and the previous one I wrote on this topic. Now if the argument about the mental and physical wellbeing of employees doesn’t satisfy them, I suggest you bring up research about how creating a meaningful workplace contributes to the bottom line to well-known companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Southwest Airlines, Tom’s of Maine, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, and many others. If they’re skeptical that they can actually create a sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace, I hope the examples in this and my previous article will help convince them otherwise, and here’s some research on other ways to do so. Also consider bringing this research to the attention of the HR department and upper-level administrators if your direct supervisor is not flexible.
Still, regardless of what your supervisor might think, a great deal of these activities are under your own control. Remember, you’re working for yourself, not for anyone else. Always remember that and be intentional and show agency in getting what you want from your work, including a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Consider sharing this article with your co-workers and/or supervisor if you think they would benefit from reading it, and also if you would benefit from them having read it.
Questions to Consider:
- Do you already practice any of the meaning-making workplace activities described above? If so, what do you do, and how have they worked out for you in gaining a greater sense of meaning and purpose? If not, which of these do you think are the lowest-hanging fruits for you?
- How has reading this article caused you to think differently about finding meaning and purpose in the workplace, if in any way? What’s your main take-away?
- Do you intend to take specific steps to gain greater meaning and purpose from your work after reading this article? If so, what do you intend to do?
- What kind of benefit have you gained from reading this article and how will your life be better off, if in any way?
P.S. For additional resources, check out this workbook with exercises on finding meaning and purpose using science-based strategies; this free science-based web app to evaluate your current sense of meaning and purpose; this free online class on finding meaning and purpose using science; this free video workshop with a certified credit option on building a sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace; and the wide variety of other resources on meaning and purpose available at Intentional Insights.