What is "Meaningful Work"?


I can't count how many 20somethings have said one of the following to me:

  • "I wish I knew what my purpose is."
  • "I don't know what I want to do, but I want a fulfilling job."
  • "I want my work to be meaningful."

Great goal, I say, regardless of their particular way of phrasing it. So glad you're thinking about that. Happy you're digging in.

Then I follow my genuine praise with a simple question:

And what, may I ask,  do you mean by "purpose"/"fulfillment"/"meaning"?


Uh, OK...

I get that "purpose" is a hella difficult thing to put into words. I couldn't have done it myself five years ago.

But how can we go around saying we're seeking something out when we have no clue what that something actually looks like?

(And millennials truly are all walking around saying this:  a recent study found "the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning." Which makes my heart throb with joy.)

I'm not referring to knowing how to find purpose/meaning/fulfillment in our own lives. That's a conundrum all it's own.

I'm simply saying that if we don't even know what we MEAN by "purpose" or "meaning" or "fulfillment," these terms are little more than filler words, coddling us into believing we're on a genuine hunt for something.

It's a lot like saying, "I'm on a quest to find the world's best gnocchi...but I haven't got a clue what gnocchi is."

Enter today's post:  brass tacks on meaning, purpose, and fulfillment at work. It'll put us all, finally, on the same page about what we're searching for - so we can move on to the important challenge of how to find it.

The Definition of Purpose

Let's start with purpose, which is inextricably linked to "meaning," although psychology scholars endlessly debate exactly how.

After a good deal of reading, I've found one definition of purpose that I embrace, created by psychologist William Damon and colleagues.

Purpose is:

  1. A goal toward which one can direct their energies that is
  2. Meaningful to the self and
  3. Extends beyond the self.

The beauty of this definition is that it makes clear what's not purposeful. It explains, for instance, why pursuing pleasurable, self-focused hobbies can leave us feeling empty and disconnected. There's no service component in such activities:

"A purpose in life represents an intention to act in the larger world on behalf of others or in pursuit of a larger cause." - psychologist Kendall Cotton Bronk and colleagues

It also explains why we can engage in acts that are undeniably selfless and yet still feel lost and directionless. That's because many "giving" acts lack Component #2:  meaningfulness to the self.

"The emphasis on self-meaning underscores the fact that the pursuit of purpose is voluntary and self-motivated. The individual, rather than peers, parents, or others, serves as the driving force behind the intention." - psychologist Kendall Cotton Bronk and colleagues

The Definition of Meaning

This begs the question of what is "meaningful" to ourselves.

Scholars are surprisingly cloudy on the definition of "meaning," often referring back to "purpose" in some endless circular definition (see a recent New York Times article for a case in point).

From what I've gleaned through my coaching, advising and research, a meaningful act is, at its core, an undertaking that feels incredibly urgent and important to us...even if no one around us shares our fascination.

It's feeling like who we are and what we do are one in the same.

It's doing something that makes us feel used in the very best way possible.

It's vibrating on a higher plane, focused on a topic or goal that riles us up emotionally, and that, for reasons we can't begin to articulate, feels totally right and "meant to be."

It's almost like flow (deep engagement to the point of losing track of time and being completed focused), yet it's performed consciously and can be sustained over long periods of time, through many series of interruptions.

It's completely independent of happiness, and may even leave us feeling less happy.

In short, "meaningful" acts are the activities we do because we aren't ourselves when we stop doing them.

Even if, at times, we genuinely wish we could stop doing them, just as we sometimes wish we had a different body type or eye color or singing voice.

Truly meaningful acts are part and parcel of who we are.

Meaningful Work

So what do these verbose definitions mean for work and career?

Everything, according to psychologist Michael Steger, a leading researcher on meaningful work.

According to him, the three components of meaningful work are:

  1. Work that we experience as having "significance and purpose."
  2. Work that contributes to our broader sense of meaning in life.
  3. Work that enables us to "make a positive contribution to the greater good."

In other words, knowing what meaning and purpose are enables us to begin to begin to put them into practice in our lives, a lofty goal well worth pursuing:

"Few other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes as creating meaning in work – both in terms of individual flourishing, citizenship, commitment, and engagement and in terms of long-term, sustainable innovation, culture maintenance, and performance in organizations." - Michael Steger, PhD

Are you up for the challenge?

Do you know someone who is struggling with issues of meaning and purpose? Then please pass this article along to him or her.

Now I want to hear from you:  what is your take on meaning and purpose? What do you think you're striving for? There's certainly no one "right" answer.


Bronk, K. C., Hill, P., Lapsley, D.K., Talib, T., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 500–510.

Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K.C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119–128.

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography