Why Finding Meaning At Work Is More Important Than Feeling Happy

Get off the monotonous treadmill of your job, and seek a different running path of meaning on your journey toward career satisfaction.

"I just want to be happy." We have all said it at one time or another. The wish for happiness is one of our most widely held goals in life.

But here’s the rub. Recent research suggests that happiness—as the be-all and end-all—isn’t the only ingredient to a life well-lived. As a result, some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness and advocating for the pursuit of its closest cousin: meaning.

Happiness vs. Meaning

At first blush, it may seem peculiar that there is a difference between feeling happy and finding life meaningful. In fact, they are positively correlated—but they don’t always go together. Findings from a recent study conducted by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina and her colleagues, examined self-reported levels of happiness and meaning, and the results were alarming: a whopping 75% of subject participants scored high on levels of happiness, but low on levels of meaning.

This divergence holds vast insight into where we invest and focus our energy, especially in the workplace. Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent—and underutilized—ways to increase productivity, engagement, and performance.

Consider the latest survey findings from the Energy Project, an engagement and performance firm that focuses on workplace fulfillment, as well as the recent New York Times story on why many hate their jobs. The survey, which reached more than 12,000 employees across a broad range of companies and industries, found that 50% lack a level of meaning and significance at work.

Moreover, employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations—the highest single impact of any other survey variable they tested. By this account, meaning trumps items related to learning and growth, connection to a company’s mission, and even work-life balance. And the employees who have meaning don’t just stick around longer. They also report 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and are 1.4 times more engaged at work.

How do we find meaning at work?

Meaning matters, but how exactly do we find more meaning at work? It’s important to first understand why what makes us happy may not always bring more meaning, and vice versa. To answer this question, a recent Stanford research project, asked nearly 400 Americans whether they thought their lives were either happy or meaningful—or both. The dissonance, in part, was how the two groups approach social interactions. Happiness is associated with being a "taker," focusing on what one gets from others. Meaningfulness, in contrast, comes from being a "giver," suspending what one wants and desires for a fair amount of self-sacrifice.

In other words, to amp up the meaning in work, we must temper our taking tendencies and dial up our acts of giving. This is an appreciable shift, especially when the modus operandi in most workplaces is to continuously seek more time, resources, and attention from others. Meaning is premised on an entirely different way of interacting—that is, giving to others in service of the "greater good."

To make this seemingly seismic shift requires challenging entrenched mindsets that selfless acts of giving can be career limiting. Intuitively, we tend to believe that those who—often maniacally—protect their own self-interests are the ones who climb the corporate ladder. Drawing on the latest science, Adam Grant, professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, turns this thinking on its head.

Grant’s book Give and Take uncovers three primary interaction styles at work, which he conveniently labels takers, matchers, or givers. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.

Not surprisingly, the majority tend to have matching styles at work. However, this proportion changes if you scan the top of the corporate food chain. It is neither takers nor matchers that make it into this coveted echelon. It is the givers.

It seems these workplace givers have discovered how to mastermind successful careers and find meaningfulness in the process—to proverbially have their cake and eat it too. What secrets do they hold? What they don’t do is drop everything to help others. Below are three practical and deceptively simple strategies they undertake to propel their meaning-laden success.

1. Become a Master Crafter: Give More of Your Talent

Job Crafting is a pioneering method created by Amy Wrzesniewski, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management; Jane Dutton, a professor at University of Michigan; and Justin Berg, a current doctoral student at Wharton. The tool empowers you to rethink your role by looking through three well-researched meaning frames:

  • Coupling, decoupling, or rearranging tasks
  • Reformulating social interactions
  • Simply fine-tuning the perception of the purpose of your work

In the end, you emerge with greater clarity on how to retro-fit your job to your unique passions, values, and strengths. The most successful and fulfilled at work are relentless job crafters. They are able to use the raw material afforded in their work to mold more meaning. In doing so, they find ways to give their best selves in service of what others need—a critical meaning-making ingredient.

2. Ignore the What and Heed the Why

Consider one computer manufacturer’s mission statement: "To be the most successful computer company in the world." That’s great. But it displays a major meaning trap that many of us fall prey to—it’s all about us. What if the mission statement read: "To be the most successful computer company for the world"? Meaning comes when we realize the impact of our work on others. In fact, what distinguishes the most successful givers—versus those who burnout—is not what or how much they give. It is that they know the difference they make on others. People aren’t inspired solely by what they do. People are lit up when they know why what they do matters.

In the relentless grind of our daily work we often forget the positive and enduring impact our work has on others. A study of hospital janitors who cleaned bed pans and mopped up vomit—perhaps the lowest-ranking job in a hospital—saw themselves as part of a team whose goal was to heal people, which suggests that meaning isn’t about the job; rather, it’s about how you view your job. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, "Work itself is but what you deem of it."

3. Remember That Other People Matter

According to Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of Happy Money, if you awaken any well-being expert in middle of the night and ask them what matters most in life, you’ll get the same response: relationships. Michael Steger, international meaning expert and creator of The Work and Meaning Inventory, agrees. He believes that relationships are the ocean in which we find meaning.

Gallup's findings that the most engaged workers report having a best friend at work have become a well-cited statistic for good reason. If you look at experiences of those who report higher meaning at work, it is not what people are doing—but rather who they are with. This is consistent with a set of findings on what distinguishes our best days: days whereby we feel enlivened and truly thriving. These days include at least six hours of social time. In fact, even three hours of social time reduces the chances of having a bad day by 10%. Meaning is made in moments, and what matters most is the people we create those moments with.

If you consider yourself part of the 70% of disengaged employees in America, what could a boost of meaning at work do for you? Organizational consultant David Cooperrider subscribes to the notion that "what we appreciate, appreciates." If we begin to appreciate the meaning that infiltrates our daily workplaces, then we will grow our capacity to seek it, and seize it. This, in turn, will increase the value of meaningfulness in our work and ensure that it gains the esteemed position it so desperately deserves: a position alongside happiness.

Jessica Amortegui works in leadership development for VMware, a company that forgoes free lunches to invest in workplace practices that embody a core company value: "to give more than it takes."

[Image: Woman jogging on a path via Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • wpzz

    Really liked this article and it reminded me of the findings of Victor Frankl in his book "Man's Search for Meaning". Very profound truth. We can choose our attitude no matter what the circumstance. Thanks for a well written article.

  • As a positive psychology trained coach, I couldn't agree more with the points you make about meaning as the path to satisfaction. How have you instilled this belief in your executives and managers at VMware? I still so way to much focus on the product at the expense of the process.

  • Say Keng Lee

    A marvelous piece of intellectual musing on "Finding Meaning vs. Feeling Happiness"!

    It continues to reverberates even after I have read it, and I like the author's parting shot:

    "If we begin to appreciate the meaning that infiltrates our daily workplaces, then we will grow our capacity to seek it, and seize it.

    This, in turn, will increase the value of meaningfulness in our work and ensure that it gains the esteemed position it so desperately deserves: a position alongside happiness."

  • Great stuff. So much of what muddies the waters in the books about happiness and all the talk of happiness at work is just about not precisely defining what happiness is in the first place. Without a clear definition it can mean anything from a profound sense of connectedness and genuine fulfillment to mild selfish pleasure. Recent work that differentiates between "hedonic" pleasure (that taker variety of enjoyable feeling) and "eudaimonic" happiness (enjoyment derived from doing for others) is drawing clearer lines in the understanding of what happiness is and how it works. The other-oriented happiness not only is meaning-based but is the kind of happiness that yields health benefits. Both feel good in the moment but only happiness derived from serving others is actually good for your health. In my programs for organizations I prefer to use the term joyfulness because it is more readily understandable as having a spiritual dimension to it and being meaningful. Good article!