Do We Need Meaningful Work?


Of the many repeated questions I receive - from reporters; students, parents, alumni, and staff at Bates College; and from my career coaching clients - the most common is whether we need meaning in our work.

Certainly the majority of us want meaningful work.

90% of respondents to a survey by BetterUp reported desiring meaning at work. In fact, they wanted meaningful work so badly that they said would trade a portion of their salary to get it. "On average, our pool of American workers said they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful," Shawn Anchor and colleagues wrote in Harvard Business Review. Almost a quarter of their earnings! And that's in a representative sample of over 2,000 people from a range of industries, ages, and roles.

But just because we want something, doesn't necessarily mean we need it, of course. It's a point I make many times a day to my 8-year-old about the "slow rise" squishies for which she yearns, and a difference we all experience whenever we stare down the bakery counter at our favorite lunch haunt.

Are we all little more than grade school kids, moaning for an experience that's "nice to have" but equates to little more than decadent, short-lived pleasure?

Shana Lebowitz, a reporter at Business Insider, recently explored this question in depth, and I was honored to get to weigh in:

"'We've set the bar way too high for what constitutes meaningful work.' Fraser-Thill shared...Meaningful work is fundamentally about feeling like it's about more than just you. Providing for your family financially counts. Bringing a smile to your coworkers' faces every day counts, too. Fraser-Thill is all but certain that, if we expanded our definition of meaningful work, we'd have a much more satisfied workforce."

I am certain that we're all capable of experiencing meaningful work, regardless of our job function, industry, educational background, or level of privilege. Job crafting research indicates as much, finding that individuals in fields as far ranging from hospital custodian to design engineers can change their thoughts, tasks and/or relationships with co-workers and clients/customers in order to move from meaningless to meaningful work.

And still, the question remains: do we need meaningful work?

We need meaning in our lives. I know that for sure.

Psychologist Michael Steger gathers the overwhelming evidence for the need for meaning in a chapter in Wellbeing, Recovery, and Mental Health (2017), summing up it this way:

"People living a meaningful life are very likely to be happier, more positive and more psychologically mature, anticipate brighter futures, take care of their health better, feel better physically and enjoy all of these qualities for a longer period of time before death."

Indeed meaning in life, and the sense of purpose it typically involves, is linked not only to psychological health, but to physical health and longevity as well, at every point in the lifespan. Gallup's worldwide wellbeing research also indicates that this relationship is predictive, moving FROM meaning and purpose TO physical, social, community, and financial well-being, not vice versa. And the impact is notable:

"People with high Career Well-Being are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall."

Intriguingly, Gallup's research focused on meaning and purpose at work in particular. Rath and Harter noted, though, that "career" well-being is about how you spend your day, regardless of the income generated. "If you don't have the opportunity to regularly do something you enjoy -- even if it's more of a passion or interest than something you get paid to do -- the odds of your having high well-being in other areas diminish rapidly," they write.

So here we finally reach the crux of the answer: we need meaning in our lives in order to be healthy and to, quite simply, keep on living. The way we spend our days creates - or fails to create - that meaning we so very much need. Since most of us also require an income to stay afloat, it follows that spending our paid work hours constructing meaning is a need, not a mere desire.

As Annie Dillard so aptly put it, "How we spend our days of course is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing."

Given that most of our waking hours are consumed by paid work (over 90,000 of them in a lifetime, to be exact), what we do with our career matters for our ability to experience meaning in our lives.

This doesn't mean we need to pick the "perfect job" or the "perfect organization." Spoiler alert: neither exists. It does mean we need to know from what sources meaning arises, and then actively shape our work lives to maximize those experiences. We all have that flexibility, even if it begins simply, like with a more enthusiastic and genuine "hi!" as we pass our co-worker into the place where we'll spend our day.

And thus, importantly, where we'll spend a good chunk of our life.