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Why Meaning Matters at Work—and How to Find It

A Q&A with Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.

Thrive Global: As you’ve pointed out, meaning has become something of a buzzword within companies.

Emily Esfahani Smith: A lot of people are searching for meaningful work. There are surveys showing that for millennials, the number one factor they’re looking for in a job is that it’s meaningful. Interestingly, there’s a shift happening in the business world toward purpose and rebranding around purpose and not just for profit. There are two real follow up questions. One is, how sincere is this effort to orient toward meaning? Are companies just paying lip service and not doing anything else? Two, is it realistic to expect your work to be this source of fulfillment in your life the way that a lot of people do?

TG: Why do you think this shift is happening, and is it a realistic goal to find fulfillment in what you do for work?

EES: It’s definitely a modern development that people are turning to work for meaning and are hoping to find work that they’re passionate about and that gives them that sense of purpose and fulfillment. If you look back through history, people just didn’t think of work that way. Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University talks about how work is taking the place of religion in our lives as this shared experience that we turn to for purpose and meaning.

I actually think that we’re putting too much pressure on our jobs to be these major sources of fulfillment because the research shows that only about one third of people feel like their work is a calling. There’s this language in our culture that is encouraging everyone to find that themselves. For most people, a job is just a job. One of the things that I try to do in my work is to say, “That’s okay.”

Your work doesn’t have to be a calling but you can still find meaning in it in two ways. One is to decide that even if your work isn’t a calling, you can find that meaning by adopting what I call a service mindset. Connecting what you’re doing to how it’s making a contribution either to your colleagues or to your clients; that immediate network of people that you work with. Whether it’s your actual project that’s making that impact or your presence in your office culture and the impact that makes.

For example, I talked to a hospital custodian from Michigan who told me that she spends much of her time mopping and cleaning. She sees her purpose at work as helping sick people heal. Did she think being a janitor at a hospital was her calling? Probably not, but she found meaning in the work that she was doing in this humble way. So I think one way to think about finding meaning at work is lowering the bar. The other is that one of the things that work allows us to do is to support ourselves financially, to support our family, to support other hobbies that we might be interested in—in other words, to allow us to lead meaningful lives by supporting these other things that give our lives meaning.

Let’s say you really wanted to be a writer or an artist growing up and that didn’t work out as a fulltime career. But you have a job that allows you to do writing and art on the side. Maybe the type of work itself isn’t meaningful but what’s meaningful is that it allows you to do something else that’s important to you.

TG: What does research tell us about the benefits of finding meaning for our performance at work?

EES: People who have meaning at work are much less likely to burn out. There’s something about having meaning that helps you get through the stress and be a little less worn down by it. If you think about it, it’s because the meaning gives you a reason to push through and it makes the more tedious, cynical or stressful aspects of your work seem worth it and in the service of a larger cause. Another benefit is that people who do have meaning tend to be more productive and engaged in their work.

TG: What about benefits for our physical well-being?

EES: In studies where older adults are followed through time, the ones who have purpose are more likely to live longer. In other research, they’re less likely to experience cardiovascular health problems. They have stronger immune systems. They have more gray matter in their brains, which is associated with better brain functioning. They’re more likely to use preventative health services, which implies that because they have something to live for, they’re more likely to take care of themselves. In terms of mental and emotional well-being, people who have meaning and purpose are more resilient to adversity.

TG: What advice would you give to someone who’s trying to find more meaning in their work and to companies that want to create a culture that values meaning?

EES: In my experience, finding meaning at work happens from the ground up for a lot of people. Going back to the hospital cleaner, I don’t think that there was a culture at the hospital where there were meetings where leaders said, “We’re all involved in this greater endeavor to heal sick people.” I think she found meaning with her own way of reframing her work. I would say encouraging people to make meaning for themselves is important.

And I think another factor is connecting people to the impact of their work. That’s less of an individual approach and more of a culture-wide approach. One of the companies I write about in my book The Power of Meaning is an apparel brand called Life Is Good. As the company got going, the brothers who founded it started receiving letters from people telling them how much their apparel meant to them. They have had cancer patients write in saying that they wore the hats to chemotherapy to give them hope, things like that. At first the brothers didn’t really know what to do with these letters but eventually they started reading them at company-wide meetings and showing their employees that the work that they were doing was having this real, positive impact on other people’s lives. When I talked to the employees there on all different levels, whether it was the secretary at reception answering the phone, or the guy working at the warehouse or the artist designing the t-shirts, they all told me the same thing, that they felt proud of their work because it was doing good in the world. The purpose of the company is to spread the power of hope and optimism, and the employees felt that their work was furthering that aim.

Each company exists because it’s filling some need in the world. So I would recommend figuring out what is the unique thing that your company is providing to society? Why does the company exist? How is it improving the world? Is there a way to tell the story of the company that brings that to light and helps employees connect to that story in their own way?

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