Meaningful work: what it is and how to achieve it

At RescueTime, our mission is to increase the amount of meaningful work that happens in the world.

As part of that mission, I’ve been diving into research on what makes work meaningful, and ways to use this research in your own job.

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Before we dive deeper, it’s important to decide what we mean when we’re talking about meaningfulness. When psychologists talk about feelings of meaningfulness, they tend to separate these feelings from happiness, though the two can go together.

Happiness and meaning aren’t the same

There’s a clear difference between feeling happiness and feeling meaningfulness in your life. And the difference is important, because they each produce different results long-term.

So what is the difference? A happy life is about seeking pleasure and enjoyment, avoiding discomfort, and doing what’s best for you as often as possible, whereas a meaningful life is about connecting with and helping others, and contributing to something beyond yourself—such as family, nature, or your work.

Because meaningful lives are characterized by contributing and connection, rather than pure enjoyment, they often include more stress, effort, and struggle than happy lives. But research shows meaningful lives tend to produce more positive feelings long-term than happiness alone, so the effort may be worth it.

Feelings of meaningfulness and a sense of purpose can even lead to more wealth. But to create a sense of meaningfulness at work we first have to understand what makes work meaningful.

What does meaningful work look like?

Interviews with 135 people in 10 different fields and reviews of existing research into meaningful work can give us an idea of what meaningful work looks like, and how we can achieve this ourselves.

Existing research has shown that meaningfulness in our work can improve our performance, commitment, and job satisfaction, and that employees find meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion.

Finding meaning in our work, however, is “intensely personal and individual.” There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meaningful work.

According to the researchers behind the interviews mentioned above, meaningful work arises when “an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”

The interviewees who did find their work meaningful often talked about their work in relation to significant family members, bridging the gap between work and their personal lives. Meaningfulness was also associated often with a sense of pride and achievement, a feeling of fulfilling one’s potential, and finding one’s work creative, absorbing, and interesting.

Even for those of us lucky enough to find all these aspects in our work, we don’t tend to feel meaningfulness as a consistent feeling. It’s more likely to be episodic, arising out of particularly challenging situations in which our skills and experience enable us to help others.

And we don’t even feel meaningfulness in the moment, usually, but rather when we reflect on those challenges after the fact. Here are the interviewers again:

Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

meeting

What increases feelings of meaning in our work and what can kill those same feelings are quite different. Our leaders and managers, for instance, have very little influence on increasing our feelings of meaningfulness, but the way we’re treated by our leaders is the most common cause of decreasing meaning at work.

Through these interviews, the researchers found seven particular acts that managers most commonly take which increase feelings of futility and meaninglessness in their employees:

  1. Creating a disconnect between personal and company values
  2. Failing to recognize and appreciate employee contributions
  3. Giving employees work they see as pointless (e.g. bureaucratic work or filling out forms)
  4. Treating employees unfairly
  5. Overriding employees’ judgement, leading to feelings of disempowerment
  6. Ostracizing employees or creating a disconnect between colleagues
  7. Creating unnecessary risk of harm to employees (e.g. putting them in situations where they feel unsafe)

While all these actions by management were associated with lower feelings of meaningfulness at work, a disconnect between personal and company values was the most common cause for feelings of futility and meaninglessness at work.

quote-decreasemeaning

Managers pushing their employees to cut corners or focus on profits over quality of work or customer service, for instance, eroded feelings of meaningfulness in those employees.

To sum up the interviewers’ findings, managers can’t help us increase how meaningful our work is, but they can all-too-easily undermine those same feelings:

… our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work… but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

So your boss can bring you down, but you’re the only person who can build yourself back up.

How to make your work more meaningful

Since your boss isn’t going to be much help, what can you do to increase your feelings of meaningfulness at work?

You could simply look for a new job that offers more meaning for you, but you can also work on adjusting your current job. This approach is called “job crafting,” a term coined by psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton in 2001.

Job crafting is the strategy of turning the job you already have into the job you love. It’s a process of adjusting your job description to create a role that provides more meaning in your life, and those who do it tend to be more satisfied and engaged in their work.

Job crafting comes in three parts, but any one will help with improving your enjoyment and sense of meaning at work.

The first part is task crafting, which is the process of picking up or dropping particular tasks to adjust the day-to-day of your role. Though this isn’t feasible for everyone, in many roles you’ll be able to do this more once you’ve proven yourself and been granted some leeway from your boss.

You might offer to pick up a task not in your job description, for instance, in order to learn a new skill and expand your abilities.

The second part is relational crafting. This is the process of purposely creating or deepening relationships at work, and changing who you spend time with. For instance, you might take some time to teach new team members, or get to know colleagues in different departments whom you normally wouldn’t interact with.

Finally, cognitive crafting. This is essentially changing the way you think about your job. Thinking differently about what you do and why it’s important can imbue your existing role with more meaning, due to a simply cognitive shift.

For instance, changing your title to reflect the most meaningful aspects of your role can help you think differently about how your work has an impact and why it’s important.

Job crafting has been shown to create a greater sense of autonomy, which in turn tends to correlate with greater job satisfaction.


Since many of us spend the majority of our time at work, it pays to think about how we can improve the way our work makes us feel. With a little effort to craft our current jobs, and a little luck to find a boss who won’t undermine those efforts, we can increase how meaningful our work feels—and in the process, become more engaged in our work and improve our output.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.