What It Really Takes To Find Meaningful Work

It has almost nothing to do with money, but you could be genetically predisposed to finding your meaningful work.

What It Really Takes To Find Meaningful Work
[Photo: Flickr user Sonny Abesamis]

Even if you are not a philosopher, you have probably worked out that things don’t really have any meaning, unless we attribute it to them. Work is no exception.


But it’s easy to persuade ourselves that our careers are inherently meaningful. So much so that the language we use has shifted from engagement to involvement, job vacancies to job crafting, and purpose to calling. All this suggests that work does have the capacity to fulfil our deepest existential needs, but does it? Should we feel guilty if our job is not rewarding? Do we need to change careers if our current job fails to provide us with a higher sense of purpose? To answer these questions, consider these five findings:

The Same Job May Be Meaningful To One Person But Not Another

As research indicates, employees are usually more likely to find meaning at work if the job helps them achieve some longer-term goals, if the tasks fit with their skillset and interests, and if the goals are congruent with their wider life goals and core needs and values.

Accordingly, the same job may seem very meaningful to one person but not to another. Much like in romantic relationships, we find meaning in, and feel fulfilled by, careers that are aligned with our fundamental beliefs and aspirations. If your goal in life is to help others, commercial careers will feel empty; if your ambition is to learn things and promote your curiosity, repetitive and structured jobs will wear you out; and if your chief interest is working with others you will hate jobs that are lonely or independent.

It’s Hardly Ever About the Money

As sociologists have been noting since the 50s, the desire to work and be productive does not disappear after financial needs are satisfied. This is why the correlation between pay and job satisfaction is almost zero, and why underpaid professionals like teachers or artists are often more satisfied with their jobs than overpaid bankers or lawyers.

That is not to say that money does not motivate: It does, but only because of its ability to increase a person’s status or freedom. In line, most people would rather take a 5% bonus if their colleagues get none, than a 10% bonus if their colleagues get 30%. And the effects of money on happiness tend to plateau after a moderate salary is reached.

Attempts to Engage Employees Often Backfire

Although the past decade has seen an unprecedented organizational interest in employee engagement–with most big organizations carrying our some form of climate survey on a yearly basis–employees are often cynical about these attempts. They view them as a marketing strategy and understand that all companies really care about is to raise productivity or Glassdoor ratings.


Just because you ask someone how they are doing does not mean you really care about them, or are willing to take action to make them feel better. The same happens at an organizational level, and engagement surveys are rarely more than a diagnostic–companies must act upon them and follow through.

Meaning Comes From Others

As studies have indicated, our interactions with work colleagues are a key provider of meaning at work. It follows that it will be harder for you to find work meaningful if you work on your own or you rarely interact with interesting people who actually care about you. This is why even in our highly technological work age, social relationships are essential. Most people want not just a job but also to feel that they actually belong there.

Job Satisfaction Is Somewhat Genetic

Although the common sense view is that the degree to which we like or dislike our jobs depends mostly on, well, what those jobs are like, research suggests that we are genetically predisposed to be more or less satisfied with our job. These predispositions are manifested through major personality traits.

Unsurprisingly, the same traits have been linked to higher levels of happiness, which suggest that they don’t just drive job satisfaction, but also satisfaction with life. Specifically, the less neurotic and more open, extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious you are, the more likely you will be to enjoy your job (and life) and think that your career (and life) is meaningful. This is why high emotional intelligence (EQ) is a strong positive predictor of employee engagement levels.