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Work and a Meaningful Life

February 11, 2022


Last June, journalist Steve Lohr (@SteveLohr) observed, “The nation’s jobs market stands at a somewhat puzzling juncture. There are still 7.6 million fewer people working than before the pandemic. But job openings are at record high levels, too. Some employers are even turning to incentives beyond money, like food and tuition for family members, to lure workers. The reasons so many jobs remain unfilled are matters of vigorous and often partisan debate.”[1] One of the motivating factors behind the so-called Great Resignation is that people have decided to look for work that provides with them greater satisfaction.


Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman General and politician Marcus Antonius (aka Mark Antony) was credited with saying, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Unfortunately, for most of the world’s population, work has been anything but a loving endeavor — it has been a matter of survival. From hunting and gathering societies to agricultural societies, it was been hard labor that put food on the table, clothes on the back, and a roof over the head. When the world started to urbanize, people started trading their time and effort for remuneration — and the money was used to buy food and other necessities. Loving work they were doing was not on top of most people’s minds. Nevertheless, John Dyer (@JohnDyerPI), President of JD&A, believes, “The Great Resignation can be a net positive as it moves people into jobs they want to perform, as long as companies offer the requisite training.”[2]


Finding Meaning in Work


The eighteenth-century philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, once wrote, “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” The Economist staff predicts when a new normal is achieved, people will return to work — perhaps with a new appreciation for it. They explain, “Today’s workers have [much] in common with every other soul who has toiled these past 12,000 years. They remain at the mercy of their appetites, and of political and economic institutions built, often consensually, to help them produce more. As it always has, work still provides a structure for both individual lives and societies at large. Little wonder that many people have been itching to get back to it as quickly as circumstances allow.”[3] As I noted in a previous article, as a way to attract and retain workers, some employers are experimenting with new ways to make work more meaningful for their employees.[4]


Despite all the talk about employee discontent, journalist Zlati Meyer (@Zlatimeyer) reports a majority of millennials already find work meaningful and fulfilling. She notes that a survey conducted by GoodHire found, “60% of millennials find great meaning and purpose in their jobs, making them the largest demographic to feel this sense of fulfillment.”[5] The survey found that members of other older and younger generations were not quite as content with barely half of Gen Xers’ (51%) indicating their work was meaningful and even less satisfaction among Baby Boomers’ (44%) and Gen Zer’s (41%).


According to journalist Rebecca Rashid (@rebecca_rashid) and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks (@arthurbrooks), people should look inward, rather than outward, to find meaning in work. They explain, “The road to purposeful work is paved with good intentions, but for many, happiness at work can feel like a hopeless cause. What if the secret to happiness at work has less to do with our extrinsic motivations (money, rewards, and personal gain) and more to do with intrinsic motivations — the meaningful relationships we build, and the ability to be in service to people who need it?”[6] Companies can help employees connect with these feelings. However, as Jenn Lim (@byjennlim) CEO and chief happiness officer of Delivering Happiness, told Brooks, “[You can’t] twist people’s arms and say, ‘Hey, you got to be happy now, like, look what you have. Be grateful, and do your gratitude journal’ and, you know, all those things. That’s not how it works.”


What does work, according to Lim, is finding ways to access an employee’s happiness levers. She explains these levers are little handles that can increase an employee’s happiness and they increase an employee’s sense of autonomy, control, and progress. “Am I learning? Am I growing? Do I have a growth mindset? Do I feel like I am developing in any and all ways of life, not just work? Connection. And this one’s a big one. And it’s not just about connectedness anymore, but you know, belonging is kind of this buzzword that’s going on now with what that means and having a sense of not just being invited to the dance or being allowed to dance, but just being able to dance however you want and being accepted for that, and then actually having a turn at [being] the DJ.” In other words, any way an employer can help an employee feel more in control of the circumstances in which they work, the more likely they are to find the work meaningful.


Another way to improve the well-being of employees is to help them connect their work to a greater purpose. McKinsey & Company analysts note, “During times of crisis, individual purpose can be a guidepost that helps people face up to uncertainties and navigate them better, and thus mitigate the damaging effects of long-term stress. People who have a strong sense of purpose tend to be more resilient and exhibit better recovery from negative events. Indeed, our research conducted during the pandemic finds that when comparing people who say they are ‘living their purpose’ at work with those who say they aren’t, the former report levels of well-being that are five times higher than the latter. Moreover, those in the former group are four times more likely to report higher engagement levels.”[7]


Concluding Thoughts


Should companies be concerned with such “touchy-feely” ideas? Should they care about their employees’ happiness? Dyer thinks they should. He explains, “There is a strong correlation between performance and happiness of the employees. Everyone wants to be involved, have a say in how their process is designed, and be part of a winning team.” If your company doesn’t care about its employees’ happiness, Dyer predicts it “may not survive the great resignation.”


Unlike older generations, younger generations are more likely to find happiness and meaning outside the workplace. They have demonstrated a greater desire to experience life than to own things. Meaningful work can be both a great experience and way to connect to the social causes important to employees. The McKinsey analysts conclude, “These are challenging times, and people who are able to draw energy and direction from a sense of individual purpose will weather them with more resilience, and will recover better afterward. Companies that embed and activate individual purpose in the employee experience can benefit as well, including through improved performance. And, of course, purposeful work and a purposeful life are enduring benefits in and of themselves — ones that everyone should have the opportunity to seek.”


Lim observes, however, that individuals must also assume responsibility for making their work and their lives more meaningful. She explains, “We, as individuals, can actually ground ourselves in our own purpose and our own values and define it for ourselves.” She suggests asking, “What’s most meaningful to me?” Business journalist Adrienne Selko (@ASelkoIW) reports that being kind to others can also help individuals find greater happiness at work. She writes, “I think by now most of us are doing random acts of kindness for our families, friends and neighbors, but what about our colleagues?”[8] Citing a study published in the Harvard Business Review, she notes, “Giving compliments actually made people happier than receiving them.” In an increasingly hostile world, showing a little kindness can bring down the temperature and increase the pleasure we find at work. At the end of the day, in spite of the difficult nature of your work or the circumstances under which it is accomplished, remember the words of English poet William Ernest Henley, who wrote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”



[1] Steve Lohr, “To Fill Millions of Open Jobs, Many Workers Need More Than Skills,” The New York Times, 14 June 2021.
[2] John Dyer, “Outlook 2022: Culture and Employee Happiness,” IndustryWeek, 23 December 2021.
[3] Staff, “A long view of work shows how little it has changed over millennia,” The Economist, 24 July 2021.
[4] Stephen DeAngelis, “The Future of Work, Conclusion: The Great Reimagination,” Enterra Insights, 9 December 2021.
[5] Zlati Meyer, “60% of millennials find purpose at work, but many are still looking to quit, survey finds,” Fast Company, 17 November 2021.
[6] Rebecca Rashid and Arthur C. Brooks, “How to Find the Secret to Meaningful Work,” The Atlantic, 2 November 2021.
[7] Naina Dhingra, Jonathan Emmett, Andrew Samo, and Bill Schaninger, “Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis,” McKinsey Quarterly, 18 August 2020.
[8] Adrienne Selko, “Showing Kindness at Work,” IndustryWeek, 24 December 2021.

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