When it comes to your work, how do you measure success?
A few likely answers come to mind. You solve problems, meet or exceed expectations, collaborate with co-workers. Your company might turn a profit. Your work may bring you accolades and respect.
Those are all important factors in a job well done. But still, there’s something missing. While these conventional markers of success surely count for a lot, they don’t touch on an increasingly valuable measure of a truly successful career: meaning.
The desire for meaning at work is universal, transcending languages, borders and industries. And it’s getting stronger. We’re in the midst of a shift away from a model that dates back to the Industrial Revolution—where people were seen as assets, performers of tasks and largely interchangeable—toward an economy that thrives on something more: meaning, purpose and humanity. Increasingly, the companies that attract and retain top talent are those that can create meaning for employees—and enable their employees to do work that has an impact.
On a personal level, finding meaning is an opportunity to expand and enrich your definition of your work and its place in your life. Maybe you’ve grown used to thinking of your job as an area of your life that’s not all that meaningful—a necessity that gets you a paycheck and not much else. But if you had it in your power to get more personal satisfaction out of your job just by making a small shift in your thinking, wouldn’t that be worthwhile?
If this sounds appealing but you’re not sure where to begin, don’t worry: the latest research shows that there are simple steps you can take to find more meaning at work, starting today.
The Science of Meaning
Is there anything more draining than pouring your time, effort and ideas into your job when, deep down, you suspect that what you’re working on doesn’t really matter? If you’ve struggled with this, you’re not alone.
In 2013, Gallup polled employees in 142 countries and made an astonishing find: 87 percent of workers surveyed around the world said they weren’t engaged at work. Think about what that means: an extraordinary amount of our collective human capital, potential and creativity is being wasted. In a big picture sense, this has repercussions for the global economy and society at large: when we’re disengaged, we’re simply not able to come together to meet our biggest challenges. On the individual level, it’s depleting. Can it really be that, for all the time we spend at work, we’re just spinning our wheels?
The engagement deficit is directly connected to our desire for more meaningful, purposeful work lives. According to a 2016 ADP Research Institute study of employees in 13 countries, one of the overarching trends of the modern workplace is a preference for working on personally meaningful projects. Younger workers especially, the study found, “are searching for meaning beyond lucrative salaries to feel fulfilled.” Indeed, a Deloitte study of millennials from 30 countries found that more than half had decided not to work for an organization because they didn’t share its values.
When you do find meaning in your work, the result isn’t just a nice feeling—your performance gets a significant boost. A 2012 global workforce study of 32,000 employees by Towers Watson, a consulting firm, showed that companies whose employees were engaged in ways directly connected to meaning had a significantly higher operating margin than those whose workers were simply willing to work harder.
The quest for meaning cuts across socioeconomic lines, too. “There is no income level at which people are not desperate for meaning,” New York Times columnist David Brooks said in a 2016 session at the Aspen Ideas Festival centered on the Gallup findings on engagement (or lack thereof) at work.
Consider the widely-cited study by Yale School of Management professor Amy Wrzesniewski, whose interviews with hospital workers yielded an unexpected finding: custodial workers, charged with the unglamorous task of cleaning patients’ rooms each day, found their work highly meaningful and fulfilling. As Wrzesniewski said, these individuals saw their work in “rich relational terms”— that is, they had forged deep personal bonds with the patients whose rooms they cleaned, and that connection filled them with pride and purpose.
Finally, when you find meaning in your work, you can experience health benefits at the genetic level, including a stronger immune system that helps you fight disease, according to a 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers found that people driven by by a sense of meaning and purpose had favorable gene expression profiles compared with those whose happiness derived from more self-centered, material pleasures.
We all aspire to live meaningful lives. But now that you know how meaning can improve your performance and lead to long-term satisfaction in your career, let’s look at the small steps you can take to bring more meaning into every day.
It’s time to put this research-backed advice it into action.
1. Pause and ask yourself, “why is this important?”
Research shows that meaning is a motivator. When you understand a project’s importance and potential impact, you’ll be much more driven to complete it.
2. Tell a non-work friend or family member about a project you’re working on.
Getting outside of your office bubble is a great way to articulate your work’s meaning to someone with a fresh perspective. Plus, their comments and questions may help you see meaning where you didn’t before.
3. Take a 30-minute break at least once a day.
Working yourself to into a state of burnout is the surest way to disconnect from the larger meaning of what you’re doing. To see the bigger picture, step away from your desk and do something that energizes you—you’ll return with renewed focus, purpose and vigor.