The Key to Finding Meaning at Work

What do you look for in a job? The usual replies include flexible working, generous benefits, great people, career progression and, of course, a decent salary. But what about meaning?

The word meaningful is rarely used in job ads. Perhaps because we assume that financial reward and career development are enough – and for some people that may well be true. But research suggests that while personal gain is indeed a key motivator, real meaning is derived from a sense that the work we do makes a positive difference to people’s lives.

Meaning and motivation

Finding meaning at work is not always an easy thing to do. For those who work in jobs that are inherently useful – doctors, teachers and pilots, for example – it is somewhat easier. Useful is one step away from meaningful, in that our efforts improve people’s lives, and that means something.

But many of us work in industries that are abstract and nebulous, where usefulness and meaning are more subjective than objective. In these industries, countless jobs could disappear overnight and the world would carry on just fine.

For many of us, the primary reason we get out of bed each morning is simply that we need the money. We trade our time and expertise for a paycheque, which provides a level of material comfort and freedom outside of work. We also know that hard work and good performance can lead to better positions and more money, which in turn feeds into power and status. These are all examples of extrinsic motivation, or motivation that arises outside of oneself.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within the individual and is much richer. This could be the motivation that a doctor has to save a human life, or the reward that a teacher feels when seeing their students grow and learn. These experiences are not about material gain, but touch us on a deeper level.

Almost all paid work is extrinsically motivating, but for a job to be truly meaningful, it must also be intrinsically motivating. Such jobs are not always easy to find.

Meaning and happiness

Happiness and meaning often come together, but they are not the same thing. Happiness is a vital ingredient of a healthy work life, but in order for it be sustainable over the long term, you also need meaning.

If you find your work meaningless, you may have moments of happiness, but there will be nothing underpinning it. If you find your job meaningful, however, you will gain long-term satisfaction through good days and bad. If anything, the bad days will be easier to take, as you will truly believe what you are doing is important.

Finding meaning in your work

While we can’t all be heart surgeons or charity workers, it is possible to find meaning in virtually any job – you just have to dig a bit deeper.

To do this, we have to rethink the role that work plays in our lives. Most people naturally associate work with personal gain through money, success or power, but the key to a meaningful job could be to do the opposite – focus on what you can offer others.

For the heart surgeon or charity worker, this is easy. Their work saves lives and relieves suffering. But for those in positions that aren’t inherently useful, this could simply mean making a customer smile or helping a colleague with something. Being useful to others is the key to finding meaning and long-term satisfaction in your job.

This is because meaning is often derived from giving, whereas happiness is often associated with receiving. So while that pay rise or promotion may make you happy for a while, giving to others will ensure that you return from work each day truly satisfied by what you do.

At a recent industry event, People First’s very own Mark Williams asked world-famous explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes about his best job. He replied saying:  

“On behalf of our Coldest Journey sponsor Standard Chartered Bank, going with my fellow Trustee, Joanna Lumley, to Bangladesh in 2012 to watch how the money we had helped raise was spent on cataract operations on a great many little children.”

This is someone who has enjoyed a remarkable career full of incredible achievements and experiences, from becoming the youngest captain in the British Army to completing a number of record-breaking expeditions. Yet despite this, his best job involved helping others.

In order to find meaning in our work, we need to focus more on what we can contribute – be it to our colleagues, our customers or our society – and less on what we stand to gain. You would be hard-pressed to find work that doesn’t allow you to contribute something in one of these ways.