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Meaningful work: why it’s important to have and how to make sure you do

In de western world, we are so fanatical about searching for happiness that it’s become an obsession, according to writer Emily Esfahani Smith. Now it appears that this search is actually the wrong goal in life: in fact, it makes people feel that their lives are without purpose.


The key to purpose is using your strength to help others

Emily Esfahani Smith

According to Smith, those who delve into the “positive psychology” of thinkers like Aristotle and Buddha are actually searching for meaning. This in itself leads to happiness. In this TED talk, the American author discusses the 4 “pillars” that can help you: the feeling of belonging, finding your calling, an otherworldly experience and storytelling.


If you want to find meaning in your life, the search probably starts where you spend a lot of your time: at work. But how do you figure out if your work is actually meaningful to you? Maybe you have a job that revolves around power and money. Or are you doing something all day that makes you wonder if it’s adding any value to your life? So, ask yourself: do you live to work, or do you work to live?


The importance of meaningful work

The importance of work in connection with a meaningful existence cannot be overstated. According to a study published in The Journal of Mental Health, conditions like depression, anxiety and stress are extremely common among working people. One by one, these problems are (partly) caused by work that people find unfulfilling. Therefore, in order to lead a meaningful life, you need to have meaningful work: work that ensures personal growth and gives you the feeling that you are contributing to the greater good.


Ask yourself the following questions

According to Lynda Gratton, organisational theorist and professor at the London Business school, you can discover if your work is meaningful enough by asking yourself a few questions. For example: do you feel intellectually challenged by your work? Can the knowledge you develop at work be applied in your everyday life? Does your work have a positive influence on society? If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, you’re definitely on the right path.


An authentic connection

But what if your answers to these questions are mostly negative? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to making your work more meaningful, as much as we may want one. In a report published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, researchers spoke with 135 people from 10 different branches and determined that every single employee was in search of an “authentic connection between work and a larger (life)goal.” Simply said, if you have the feeling that your work is more than just a job, then you’re already pointed in the right direction. Alongside this, feeling proud of what you do plays a role, as well as the feeling that your work is interesting and allows you creative freedom.  


Don’t worry if these kinds of feeling don’t immediately surface as you read this article. The idea that you have a meaningful job is something that comes in waves—when you’re being really challenged or when you help a colleague out of a sticky situation, for example. So, it’s not necessarily something that’s a continuously present in your life. 


Job crafting

If you want to do something to make your work more meaningful at this very moment, you can consider the principle of “job crafting.” This term, first mentioned in a research paper by Yale University professor Amy Wrezesniewski and associates, involves a 3-step plan that can help you turn your work more to your advantage. The first step is “task crafting,” where you think about which parts of your job you like and which parts you don’t like. It’s simply a matter of removing the things that make you unhappy. Of course, it may not be easy to do this with every function, but you can always search for ways to try.


Part two is composed of “relational crafting,” or, in other words: building stronger and closer relationships with your colleagues. Spending more time with the people at work you like, and less time with those you don’t. And finally: “cognitive crafting.” At first glance, this one seems like the simplest, because it’s about changing your mindset—and that means the responsibility lies solely with you. In this last part, you try to look at your work through a more positive lens, which hopefully leads to more fulfillment. 


You can choose to practice all three parts of this principle, but it’s not necessary. Who knows...maybe your work will instantly feel more meaningful when you remove a few of your least favourite items on your to-do list…

Want more tips on you can make your work more enjoyable? Read our article about workplace wellness.