What IS Meaningful Work? Do We Even Know?


“I want meaningful work,” a career coaching client says during our first call together.

“OK, great, we can definitely help you move toward that goal," I say. "And can I ask what you mean by ‘meaningful work’? What is it you're looking for?”

There's a long pause.

“Honestly, I don’t know how to put it into words,” the client says. “But I know it’s something different than I get from work now!”

Point taken. And commonly expressed!

Most of us want “meaningful work,” regardless of our age, but are we clear about what we’re seeking? Until about ten years ago, I couldn’t have articulated “meaningful work” myself - even though I longed for it. And talked about it a lot.

This lack of clarity is a real problem. How can we construct meaningful work for ourselves if we have no idea what we’re aiming toward?

Thankfully, we can all get more directed in our search for meaningful work by learning from psychologists' efforts.

What Meaningful Work is NOT

  • Meaningful work is not the same as job satisfaction, commitment to work, or work engagement, according to a study by psychologist Blake Allan and colleagues that combined data from 44 previous research articles. Their powerful research not only found that these experiences are different from one another, but that meaningful work predicts job satisfaction, work engagement, and commitment. In other words, we need meaning at work if we want to be deeply involved and enthused by what we do.

  • “Meaningful work” is also, interestingly, not synonymous with “meaning.” Meaning is how we make sense of an experience, which we might do in a positive, negative or neutral way, Allan and colleagues write. For instance, if you don’t get a job offer that you really want, you might make positive meaning out of the disappointment by thinking, “I bet this is making room for an even better opportunity to come along;” or make negative meaning out of it by thinking, “this is one more piece of evidence that I’m  perceived as too old by this industry;” or neutral meaning might instead arise: “that meant nothing; there will be other interviews.” On the contrary, meaningful work is, by definition, positive. Nobody has "negative meaningful work.” Thankfully!

So What IS Meaningful Work?

  • Meaningful work is individually-determined. I asked my career coaching client to share her take on “meaningful work” for precisely this reason:  what feels meaningful to you might not to me, and vice versa. The judgment depends on the work-relevant values we each hold: our sense of what’s most important to us. Typically these values relate to our (big, hairy, unclear) existential goals: Why am I here, and what’s worth doing while I am here? We might not always be able to put that into words off the bat (!), but noticing when and where we gain energy can point us in the right direction. For instance, inspiring and educating the next generation of helpers is apparently a top work-related value of mine because that's what charges me up, consistently. That goal might feel completely pointless to you - which is totally fine...as long as you don't go out and become an educator!

  • Meaningful work is based on an overall judgment of our work, not on our moment-by-moment experience. We all have aspects of our work that feel meaningless. For instance, I’m writing this article to put off making a multiple choice exam for my 200-level students at Bates College. Certainly if I dig deeply enough, I can find meaning in even the understimulating task of exam creation - exams encourage students to study material deeply and provide them and me feedback on their comprehension, thus guiding future instruction and learning approaches - yet, overall, it doesn’t feel meaningful as I write each individual test question. If we do meaningless tasks all day long (meaningless, again, compared to our personal work-relevant values), then our overall appraisal of our work is that we do not do “meaningful work.”  Somewhere between either extreme - all meaningless tasks or (the impossible ideal of) all meaningful tasks - is a tipping point that leads us to judge our work as, overall, “meaningful” or not. Based on my work with coaching clients and Bates alumni, this tipping point varies greatly from individual to individual - and can be changed.

  • There are many ways to get to meaningful work. The great news that emerges from research is that we can get to “meaningful work” through many different pathways. That said, two processes in particular lead most of us to judge our work as meaningful: when we growing personal and/or contribute to other people while working. Indeed, ADP Research Institute’s survey of over 2000 participants in 13 countries found that almost 90% of younger workers look for precisely these two aspects in work. That said, since values are individualized, the processes to experience meaningful work likely are, too, and do seem to vary a bit by generation.

  • We don't have to leave our existing job in order to “find meaningful work.” Based on all of these points, there are many ways we can make our current job feel more meaningful, either while searching for our "next" or instead of making the often financially and psychologically fraught big leap. Among many other small changes we can make, we can shift our focus from the meaningless tasks at work to the meaningful tasks; increase the proportion of time and energy we put into the meaningful tasks, if possible; and/or identify the values we are fulfilling through our work and elevate their importance in our life. It may feel easier to do all of this in the “blank slate” of a new organization, industry and/or role, and at times it truly is. I’m a big believer, though, in flexing our muscles of doing these "job crafting" exercises wherever we happen to currently be. The novelty of any new role will eventually wear off, and those muscles will come in handy!

Final Thoughts

Overall, meaningful work is possible for any and all of us; job crafting researchers have shown this to be true in careers of all statuses and financial reward, from hospital custodians to hairdressers to design engineers and more. If we stay clear on what meaningful work is - and is not - then we can not only seek it, but actually find what we’re looking for.