3 Ways to Uncover Meaning in Your Work

Meaning is key to boosting happiness and fending off burnout, and it starts with the stories you tell yourself.

Andrii Zastrozhnov/ Shutterstock
Andrii Zastrozhnov/ Shutterstock

If you’re wondering why the conversation around burnout has become nearly ubiquitous in recent years, it’s because the experience has, too: Two-thirds of the full-time American workforce suffers from burnout (the main symptoms of which are exhaustion, a sense of inefficacy, and cynicism, according to experts). And 63 percent of workers reported not feeling engaged in their work, according to a 2013 Gallup poll that surveyed 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries.

The prevailing theory into what helps some of us avoid burnout while others succumb to it? Those who fend it off feel a sense of purpose in their work, which makes day-to-day tasks seem less stressful and helps people feel generally happier about the work they’re doing. In a new Quartz article, London-based reporter Cassie Webber argues that finding true meaning in our careers comes not from “following our passion” and landing a job “that makes us wildly happy every day,” but from the stories we tell ourselves. “Meaning isn’t something to be found, and it can’t be uncovered by heartfelt commitment, long hours, and self-sacrifice,” she writes. “Meaning is something we make.”

Two people might have “the exact same work circumstances — the same precariousness, same distress and long working hours, same obnoxious boss,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a graduate business school with campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, told Quartz. “And one person feels: ‘This is a hopeless situation, I’m really in pain, I’m suffering.’ And [the other] person says, ‘Well, you know, I’m putting up with this because…’” Petriglieri isn’t suggesting that we all need to put up with unhappy situations, Webber writes. Instead, “He’s identifying the idea, widely accepted in psychology literature, that the ‘because’ is key.”

Finding meaning in what you do can make you exponentially happier  — but if you’re at a loss for where to look, here’s help:

Retell your story

Research shows our self-talk can determine the drive and passion we bring to our work. Webber writes that our feelings about our work often stem from “career cartography” — the maps we write of our professional paths. Once you shift your mindset to realize you’re in control of that map, Webber says your self-talk will improve, and you’ll set yourself up for greater success at work. “Your career is a treasure hunt,” she adds. “Accepting that fact can transform what you choose to do with your life, but it can also transform the way you feel about what it is you already do.”

Focus on your bigger purpose

Experts say finding meaning has nothing to do with your job title, or where you fall in your company’s hierarchy. In a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, author Charles Duhigg mentions a 2001 study, where researchers found that particular janitors at hospitals seemed happier than others, simply because they felt something deeper in their work. “Some members of the janitorial staff saw their jobs not as just tidying up but as a form of healing,” Duhigg explains. “If you see your job as healing the sick, rather than just swabbing up messes, you’re likely to have a deeper sense of purpose whenever you grab the mop.”

Start “job carving”

In the New York TimesSmarter Living newsletter, founding editor Tim Herrera highlights the importance of “job carving” or slowly shifting your responsibilities within your current position from what drains you to what energizes you. He encourages people to write down what they love and loathe about their careers, and identify the hidden clues about what feels meaningful, and what doesn’t. “This exercise gives you a road map about how to focus your time and energy on the things that get you excited,” Herrera explains. “Rather than trying to get better at things you hate doing and know you’re not great at, reframe the issue and try to do more things that energize you and that you excel at.”

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