I headed to work earlier than usual this morning. The roads were packed with vehicles, and people were hustling back and forth. Though exposed to the dazzling sunlight for 40 minutes, I chose not to wiggle and wrestle to get to work on time as usual. Instead, I let my mind roam free, observing the urban rush come into full action. Where were those cars heading? What emotions were people hiding behind those face masks?
I could come up with guesses about where they were going and how they felt, but I had no clue whether they loved their current job.
People believe it is miserable to spend most of our life doing something we dislike. If it were the case, there would be millions of pitiful workers across the globe. In a survey of 12,000 employees conducted by Havard Business Review, 50% of the participants found their work meaningless. Another survey of more than 230,000 people in 142 countries reported that only 13% loved what they were doing.
Such dissatisfaction is supposed to result from suffocation in the professional environment. Employees often have little to no control over their full-time work, so they turn to a side hustle to tilt the scales.
However, I wonder whether a side hustle will add more sense of meaning to our life or just make us busier. But what does doing a meaningful job really look like?
That question has stuck with me for a while. Luckily, I stayed with my job as a writer before figuring out a satisfying answer. So today, I bring it to the table for discussion.
Work is meaningful when…
It satisfies our need for achievement.
David McClelland’s human motivation theory is commonly used to explain our motivation at work.
According to McClelland, humans always seek to satisfy three types of needs: (1) a need for achievement, (2) a need for power (influencing others), and (3) a need for affiliation (social interactions). A job is perceived as meaningful if it can help a worker meet those three needs.
This theory is consistent with the findings of a survey involving 374,000 people on Payscale. Specifically, surgeons and anesthesiologists topped the list of professionally worthwhile and highly-paid (and also most stressful) occupations.
Other top-ranking jobs were associated with “community and social services,” such as firefighters, therapists, chaplains, and teachers. Despite lower pay, as opposed to other occupations like doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, more than 60% of the respondents who pursued a career in this domain found their work rewarding in another way.
Those jobs share one thing in common. They allow employees to interact directly with “end customers” and thus influence them. Author Dan Cable wrote in Harvard Business Review that having direct interactions with customers was one of the most effective ways to add meaning to work, way more than listening to speeches on the company’s missions and visions during quarterly or yearly meetings.
It explains one of the main reasons many big-corp employees quit their thousand-dollar jobs and opt for more flexible ones, such as YouTubers, to satisfy their need for social interactions.
However, the human motivation theory doesn’t account for the cases where individuals can find purpose in their work without receiving verbal recognition or “rewards” from others.
It fits into our life.
Work increases its meaningfulness when it matches an individual’s self-concept.
When work is (partly) integrated into your daily life, you will not necessarily wrestle with work-life balance. You will no longer feel your work and home identities are separate and different from each other because work brings about values that align with your own, as shown in a study by Mahdi Ebrahimi, an assistant professor at California State University.
This conception is grounded on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic motivation, as seen in the need for achievement theory. Simply put, intrinsic motivation is the internal, inherent enthusiasm that propels you to do something. It allows you to remain with a job despite your dissatisfaction with salary or other benefits. That said, intrinsic motivation is not available at birth but derives from a significant emotional event you experienced.
Take doctors, for example. According to the need for achievement theory, doctors are considered a meaningful occupation. However, the level of meaningfulness varies by person. Some are determined to pursue this medical career as they admire a doctor who, for instance, saved their life when they were young. Meanwhile, others choose the same profession to suit their family’s expectations. In short, their circumstances will influence how people interpret the meaning of their work.
Contrary to popular belief, scientists at the University of Sussex and the University of Greenwich found that the meaning of work can be shaped by a miserable, negative experience (or experiences) instead of a positive one. For example, a person who suffered from domestic violence and had their voice silenced can value and find meaning in artists’ ability to express their inner feelings.
While an experience can more or less shape an individual’s character, negative experiences will significantly inform their identity. In that sense, work is more worthwhile if it can help them achieve emotional fulfillment.
Nevertheless, not everyone undergoes an emotionally charged experience that defines their identity. In such cases, the meaning of work will be considered from a more technical standpoint, as below.
It is sustainable.
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended how the world works and provoked controversies over the meaning of work. People have since changed their perspective on jobs that are traditionally underrated or taken for granted in everyday life, such as food stall chefs, supermarket workers, shippers, and sanitation workers.
“I used to think that my life would mean nothing if I could no longer explore new places. However, the pandemic hit me hard. Being locked down at home, I realized that my mom, a greengrocer who had never traveled outside her hometown, was doing a much more meaningful job than I was,” said Lam, a travel blogger. Consequently, that unexpected realization plunged her into an identity crisis.
“Until one morning, I was drowning in sleepiness when my mom handed me a reddish jar and asked if I knew how to make jams. It suddenly hit me that I was exaggerating the search for meaning in my work. It could be as simple as my mom wanting to keep fruits longer by making jams and preserves instead of only selling fresh fruits.
Then I decided to take a break from travel blogging and started sharing more insights into the culture, cuisine, or spiritual services of some places I had visited. I realized that jobs evolved over time, but they remained worthwhile and meaningful as long as they served the basic needs of human beings.”
Lam’s story matches one of the ideas of sustainable work that retains its intrinsic value despite the passage of time.
Meanwhile, according to David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, there exists a paradox that some well-established jobs are useless and meaningless. Lying at the forefront are managerial jobs. A manager must push employees to fulfill assigned tasks against their will and remain accountable for any unexpected problems. The controversial topic of “bullshit jobs” will be saved for discussion in another article.
Graeber’s idea triggers a question: How can we identify sustainable work? According to author Sennett, sustainable work entails craftsmanship. That is, it provides enough room for technical development over the years. It doesn’t limit to manual jobs, such as carpenters or pottery makers, but includes white-collar ones like waste treatment managers. From your perspective, what makes work sustainable?
However, meaningful jobs do not guarantee pleasure.
Meaningfulness does not necessarily equal job satisfaction because many uncontrollable factors at the workplace, such as co-worker relationships and boss-employee dyads, can affect one’s sense of fulfillment.
Interestingly, an MIT study found that leadership was not listed as contributing factor to the meaning of work. Yet, poor leadership ranked high among the top reasons for destroying their sense of meaningfulness in their work.
Besides, some argue that a sense of meaningfulness is a temporary feeling which can get high or low depending on an individual’s life events.
Over-focusing on happiness can lead us to feel the opposite. Therefore, worrying less about meaningfulness might be vital to finding a meaningful job.
Working in the media industry, Hai has engaged in many creative projects involving more than 20 people. He admitted feeling very uncomfortable when his brainchild underwent lots of editing. However, he has gradually realized that it is not worth getting frustrated if small details do not affect the big picture of the project. For him, zillions of human arguments are nothing compared to cosmic dust in this immense universe. Embracing such realization, surprisingly, he finds his work “lovelier.”
Also, one of the most effective ways to make work worth it is by working less. Many European countries have officially adopted the four-day workweek since early 2023, aiming at increasing worker satisfaction and productivity. When we are content with our personal life outside work, “having a job” is fulfilling enough. In that case, the job we take doesn’t necessarily meet all criteria of meaningful work.
Additionally, recent advances in technology and artificial intelligence will help humans work less but more efficiently and improve their living quality. AI is indeed triggering a fear of mass unemployment. But on the bright side, it can serve as a catalyst, urging workers to assertively walk away from a job they do not love and stop bothering with an existential issue like the meaning of work.
However, if you find your work pointless and unsatisfying and look for a more specific solution, the following approach recommended by MIT researchers might come in handy.
You should re-evaluate a meaningfulness ecosystem which consists of organizational meaningfulness, job meaningfulness, task meaningfulness, and interactional meaningfulness. If you can derive meaning from more than one listed element, you have a good reason to remain with the job.
It is impossible to thoroughly address such a complex topic as the meaning of work within an article. An employee may find work meaningful in one of the three discussed aspects or a combination of all and beyond.
It is seemingly unnecessary to over-focus on the meaning of work. We are not meant to do one job for our whole life but find one that suits our skills and goals in each phase. And you should make no apology for seeing your work meaningful some days but not others.
From your perspective, what makes work meaningful?