Jerome is desperate. He drags himself to his office job every day, the one he’s had for 4 years now. He clocks in at 9 and starts doing client calls until 12. He then takes a half-hour lunch break, followed by a team meeting, and then more client calls until 5. The same old job, the same routine, and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness deep inside. He doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, he just feels no sense of meaning to it all. It’s a good job, pays the bills, but he’s just so unhappy. He increasingly finds himself zoning out instead of doing his work, and his performance reviews suffer. He is worried about being laid off! So, he decides to research strategies for bringing a sense of meaning and purpose to the workplace. He learns about science-based strategies for doing so, and starts applying them to his workplace. So, what are these strategies?

Build community spirit and social bonds through your work.

Plenty of studies indicate that community and social bonds contribute strongly to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. The scientific literature shows this applies to work as to any other sphere of life.

I will use myself as an example. In my own role at Intentional Insights (InIn), I strive to create opportunities to engage with fellow participants on projects together and to collaborate in a positive and supportive manner. Collaborating around mutually exciting projects in a positive manner is one way to build social bonds in the workplace.

Moreover, I make sure to regularly meet with InIn participants to talk about topics not directly related to our mutual work, but to other things going on in our lives. Doing so helps enrich the professional relationship and turn it into a deeper and more meaningful one, where both people feel supported by the other. Likewise, I occasionally organize social events where all InIn participants can gather to socialize, especially to celebrate important organizational accomplishments.

You can do some of the same in your own work. Most types of work provide opportunities to work with others on mutual projects, and you can do your part to be a great team player who supports and encourages others.

Likewise, set up meetings with coworkers and talk about things related not only to work, but also to life as a whole. While an increasing number of people work from home, video-conference calls can provide an opportunity to both collaborate on work projects and talk about non-work topics.

Serve others through your work.

Social service to others is one of the keystones of greater meaning and purpose in life, as numerous studies reveal. Research specifically on the workplace has found that the same concept applies to work as well as to anything else. So I and my fellow InIn participants are lucky ducks, as the organization by its very nature is oriented toward helping our audience have better lives. Furthermore, one of our key principles is to coach and mentor each other, which both builds social bonds and serves others.

It is important, however, to reflect occasionally on how I specifically help others have a better life. To do so, I and other Intentional Insights participants collect quotes from emails, blog comments, and other sources where people express gratitude to the organization for helping them, and share these with each other. I encourage a work culture where we highlight and celebrate mutual accomplishments in helping our audience members improve their lives.

Let’s say you have a 9-5 job that does not explicitly serve others, what then? No worries! Every job helps somebody somehow. Think about the social value you provide. What is it about what you do that helps others have better lives? Journal about it and collect any positive feedback provided from others about your work. Take steps to solicit such feedback, since some workplaces don’t have optimal systems to provide it. Don’t ask for direct compliments, but ask people for their frank assessment of how you are doing, both your strengths and your weaknesses. Look for both formal and informal opportunities to support and coach others in your workplace.

Likewise, see if your workplace has service projects, like building homes through Habitat for Humanity or volunteering in a soup kitchen. Also, remember that the salary you earn at your work can be donated to charity, and many employers offer matching contributions. Effective Altruism identifies the most effective charities by using well-reasoned, evidence-based evaluations. Such civic engagement can help you find greater meaning and purpose in your work  by serving others outside the direct context of your work. Again, to cultivate the deepest sense of life purpose, keep a journal and reflect on the positive impact you’ve had on others.

How do I know if these strategies are working for me?

Great question! Use the Meaning and Purpose Questionnaire (MPQ), a research-informed tool used to quantify your own sense of purpose in every area. Take that questionnaire with a focus on your work activities, and work on any areas that you might find are lacking.

What if my supervisor doesn’t want me to do meaning-making activities at work?

I hear you. Some supervisors don’t yet realize the benefits for employee mental and physical health and wellbeing that come from a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their work. First off, I’d suggest you talk to them about the research on this topic. If the argument about the mental and physical wellbeing of employees doesn’t satisfy them, I suggest you bring up research about how creating a meaningful workplace contributes to the bottom line of well-known companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Southwest Airlines, Tom’s of Maine, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, and many others. Also consider bringing this research to the attention of the HR department and upper-level administrators if your direct supervisor is not flexible.

Still, regardless of what your supervisor might think, a great deal of these activities are under your own control. Remember, you’re working for yourself, not for anyone else. Always remember that and be intentional. Show agency in getting what you want from your work, including a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Consult resources such as this science-based free workbook about meaningful work, and this web app to measure your sense of meaning and purpose.

Consider sharing this article with your co-workers and/or supervisor if you think they would benefit from reading it, and also if you would benefit from them having read it.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you already practice any of the meaning-making workplace activities described above? If so, what do you do, and how have they worked out for you in gaining a greater sense of meaning and purpose? If not, which of these do you think are the lowest-hanging fruits for you?
  • How has reading this article caused you to think differently about finding meaning and purpose in the workplace? What’s your main takeaway?
  • Do you intend to take specific steps to gain greater meaning and purpose from your work after reading this article? If so, what do you intend to do?
  • What kind of benefit have you gained from reading this article, and how might this information improve your life?

Featured photo credit: Happy businesswoman via flickr.com

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