When Charles Duhigg attended his 15-year Harvard Business School reunion, what he found was a room of familiar faces who were very successful, and incredibly unhappy. “They were miserable,” the best selling author recalls in his piece for The New York Times Magazine’s new “Future of Work” issue. “They complained about jobs that were unfulfilling, tedious, or just plain bad,” he adds. “There was a lingering sense of professional disappointment.”
Duhigg’s experience with his former classmates is unfortunate, but it’s not shocking. The reality is that many Americans are unhappy at work, and despite a new push to prioritize employee well-being in some workplaces, the numbers have not seen significant improvement. According one survey from 2010, only 43 percent of workers said they felt satisfied at work — a number that was at 61 in the 1980s, and has only risen to 51 percent today.
Duhigg says that technology and changing work culture are, in large part, to blame for the crisis. “The answer comes down to oppressive hours, political infighting, increased competition sparked by globalization, an ‘always-on culture’ bred by the internet,” he argues. But one of the main components behind our widespread dissatisfaction is a lack of meaning.
“Something that’s hard for these professionals to put their finger on [is the] underlying sense that their work isn’t worth the grueling effort they’re putting into it,” Duhigg writes. An internal sense of purpose is what so many professionals are missing in their jobs — and he says it could be the answer to our overarching problems with corporate culture. “Workers want to feel that their labors are meaningful,” he adds. “We want to feel that we’re making the world better, even if it’s as small a matter as helping a shopper find the right product at the grocery store.”
Duhigg’s observation is backed by science, too. According to the Harvard Business Review, feeling happy about your purpose at work has been proven to raise sales, improve work ethic, and increase accuracy on tasks. A 2015 study found that workers are significantly more productive when they feel good about the work they’re doing. Other researchers have found that finding a sense of purpose in your work can help prevent burnout and lead to more intentional work.
Duhigg also cites a 2001 study, where researchers explored why particular janitors at hospitals seemed happier than others. They found that the more cheerful workers felt something deeper in their cleaning jobs. “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.”
While the concept of finding meaning in what you do can seem intuitive and simple, most workplaces have not yet made the effort to emphasize a sense of purpose to align with that data. In the face of that reality, Duhigg says it’s up to us to remind ourselves of the meaning in our work, and urges us to do so regularly. He points out that many of the happiest people he’s encountered have felt that they feel an underlying intention in what they do, and even when the job is difficult, it’s worth reminding yourself of your purpose in doing it. “Finding meaning, whether as a banker or a janitor, is difficult work,” Duhigg writes. “For those who do find themselves miserable at work, it’s an important reminder that the smoothest life paths sometimes fail to teach us about what really brings us satisfaction day to day.”
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