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The Secret to Meaningful Work: It’s All About You!

The Secret to Meaningful Work: It’s All About You!

“Pursue your passion.”

That’s the way to find meaning in your work, right?

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Well, “pursue your passion”  is the typical phrase thrown around when people talk about finding meaning in one’s work. And that’s not bad advice. Pursuing your passion is one great way of finding meaning and happiness in your work. I did so myself when I decided to become a professor and later the President of Intentional Insights.

Helping people reach their goals using science-based strategies is incredibly motivating for me. I get shivers of pleasure when I get emails from people thanking me for improving their lives. I’m so tempted to stay up long into the night to make more articles and videos to help spread such messages, energized by the vision of how much better the world would be and how much happier people would be with these tools. It’s better than coffee!

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So are you telling me I can’t find meaning in work that does not match my true passion?

No, not at all! The research shows that you actually can make pretty much any work significantly more meaningful. Now that should put a smile on your face!

Studies find that your mental and physical well-being depend on having a rich sense of purpose and meaning in life, so it’s wise to make your work meaningful. I’ll cover one strategy on how to do that here, and two in a subsequent article on this topic.

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Before diving into the strategies, let me clarify that I use the term “work” to refer to any area in which you get paid to bring value to others. For example, the government supports schools because students bring value by becoming educated to make a better society for us all. House-husbands and house-wives bring value by taking care of the home, and are supported by their partners. At Intentional Insights, we create blogs, videos, apps, online classes, books, most available for free, with those who value these products being out there volunteering or offering donations to our nonprofit.

Ok, so I’d like to make my work more meaningful—what’s the first strategy?

First, think about the connection of your everyday work tasks to your personal long-term goals at regular intervals. Being the President of Intentional Insights helps me accomplish my long-term goal of improving the world and helping people have better lives. But that higher purpose tends to be lost in the everyday tasks of writing articles, fundraising, answering emails, etc.

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So every week on Saturday afternoon, I sit down to review what I did that week. I think about how it helped bring about the kind of world where I want to live. I imagine that world, visualizing all the details of how much better off other people are, how they make wiser decisions, how much less suffering and more joy there is in the world. I let myself feel how good it would be to live in that world, and how great it is that my daily work activities help bring that world into reality. I then write my feelings and thoughts in my journal. I want to make sure I have a record I can refer back to any time I get lost in the everyday business of my work activities. Research shows journaling is a great strategy to gain a higher sense of meaning and purpose in life. I also encourage others at Intentional Insights to connect their long-term goals to their daily tasks, and to create an organizational culture that facilitates such meaning-making activities.

While improving people’s lives happens to be my goal, you should think about your own goals. Maybe you think, “I only do my job for the paycheck.” Try to sit down at systematic intervals and think about what your paycheck does for you. Does the money help you accomplish your goal of having financial stability and security? Does it help you have the kind of lifestyle you want? Does it help you support your family? Visualize the specific things that the money does for you. Imagine that world thoroughly, and feel all the positive emotions you get from that world. Then, write down your feelings and thoughts, and refer back to them whenever you’re feeling like you need to recall the reasons you’re doing what you’re doing.

So what’s the take-away here?

The take-away is that you work for yourself, not anyone else. You do what you do for your own reasons and goals. 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:

  • Say your friend asked you how to find meaning and purpose in their workplace. What advice might you offer?
  • Will reading this article lead you to take specific steps to gain greater meaning and purpose from your work? If so, what are those steps? What might be the barriers to such steps, and how will you deal with such barriers?
  • What kind of benefit have you gained from reading this article and how will your life be better off, if in any way?

Featured photo credit: Professional Woman via flickr.com

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

President and Co-Founder at Intentional Insights; Disaster Avoidance Consultant

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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