Where do I find the meaning in my work?
23rd September 2019
The study of what we understand as modern psychology and specifically how to help people with psychological disorders has been on-going for nearly 150 years. In the 1990’s, nearly 100 years after it started, attention turned to understanding how normally functioning people can flourish with the advent of the positive psychology movement.
Since then this movement has gathered momentum and spawned an industry of research and activities designed to help us better understand what we can do to improve our psychological health and wellbeing.
Research has shown that a proactive approach to looking after our psychological health can improve our performance, relationships, health and overall quality of life.
Our work is a key factor in contributing to our level of happiness and therefore our psychological wellbeing. It can connect us to the broader world, enhance wellbeing and provide life satisfaction, fulfilling three basic psychological needs of survival, relationships and self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 1985).
Often though our pursuit of career goals can focus on more transient factors that don’t increase our overall health and wellbeing. As humans we are psychologically conditioned to seek pleasure. The happiness we experience as a result of pleasure is called “hedonic happiness” (Meehl, 1975). Hedonic happiness is fleeting, momentary and does not lead to a long-lasting improvement in the quality of our lives. This is why a pay rise or promotion, although potentially long yearned for, diminishes in impact relatively quickly. We get used to it and cease to get the positive value from it. “Eudaimonic happiness” (Ryff, 1989) is much longer lasting – creating an improvement in our happiness and wellbeing in a more stable way.
Finding meaning in the work we do is a source of eudaimonic happiness as opposed to the fleeting impact of a pay rise. The importance of meaningfulness in work is greater than other factors such as pay, career advancement or working conditions (Bailey & Madden, 2016) and is the key driver of performance, commitment and satisfaction (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003).
Research has identified that meaning in our work comes from a variety of sources: the work itself, the relationships we form through the work, the manner in which the work increases our sense of self – our identity, and the spiritual connection we may have with the work (Rosso, Dekas, Wrzesnieuski, 2010).
Meaning can also be influenced by the degree to which the work serves the organisation, the degree to which it aligns and supports your personal life, and the degree to which it serves a purpose beyond the organisation and the individual – it’s contribution to society and the world (Steger, Dik, & Duffy, 2012). An exploration of these factors in relation to your own work may help you understand where you are deriving your meaning from or, if it’s lacking, where you need to seek it
Furthermore, increased meaning can be derived by being able to use your strengths in your work, being able to personalise and influence the work done, and the extent to which you can grow and develop through the work (Steger, 2017).
This is why seeking the job that aligns with your sense of purpose, utilises your strengths and enables you to build long lasting relationships will increase your overall performance, life satisfaction and wellbeing. If this can be combined with a pay rise or promotion, then all the better.
So, in attempting to review your current role, make decisions about your career path, and evaluating new career opportunities, asking yourself these questions may be a useful place to start:
To what extent do I find the work interesting and satisfying?
To what extent can I influence and shape the work?
How do the relationships I have at work benefit me?
To what extent am I able to use my strengths in my work?
How well integrated is my work with my personal life?
How well is my work aligned with my purpose in life?
To what extent does my work serve society beyond the organisation?
To what extent can I grow and develop through my work?
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