7 ways to find more meaning at work

Elinor Schmitz-Jansen is studying for an MSc in Management at Imperial College. She is currently working at Happy, researching academic studies of happiness and meaning in work. This is her first report:

Work is boring, exhausting, a necessary evil, and too much work is dangerous. Do these words sound familiar to you? A lot of the discourse surrounding work originates from the industrial era, when these words described the horror of factory workers’ realities. Today, however, the nature of work is changing, and so are our attitudes towards our jobs.

Is work the most important thing in our lives?

Research has shown that although we are still inclined to describe work with the words above, the fact is that many of us actually find the highest stimulation and social interaction at work, not out of it. The idea that people working hard or long hours suffer more has also been proven wrong – one researcher found that “among those working more than 60 hours per week, 70% say they ‘enjoy their job’ compared to 57% across the whole working population.” (Reeves, 2001).

Actually, in an extensive study, it appeared that one third of us state that work is “the most important thing in our lives” (ibid, p. 4). Work has become a starting point for one’s identity and social belonging. Social psychologist Arlie Hochschild explains how the tables have turned: “new management techniques so pervasive in corporate life have helped transform the workplace into a more appreciative, personal sort of world” (ibid, p.127).

The most famous researcher on this area is arguably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his research on ‘flow’ – a condition in which people are energetic, immersed in a task and fully concentrated. Being in this state is reported to cause enjoyment and satisfaction, and his research proved that people experience this state far more often at work compared to out of work. So, it is time to throw aside the outdated philosophies telling us how to think about work, and embrace the fact that work is, or has all the potential to be a, happy place. Below are 7 actions you can take to help you realise the full potential of your job and its ability to make your life more meaningful.

Seven ways to find Meaning at Work

1.  Embrace the fact that your job is meaningful. It is time we kill off the old stigma that work is horrible and too much of it destroys people’s lives, and instead step up and recognize that actually, many of us have the capacity to find our jobs to be meaningful. In modern times, work has been blamed for causing stress, crashed relationships, bad parenting and affairs. The choice of work as a culprit for people’s bad behaviour must stop: parents who love their jobs are more likely to be happy at home and therefore better and more attentive parents (Reeves, 2001), and doing what you love can no longer be blamed for causing affairs – this is adult peoples’ own choices, not the result of work itself! So step up, take pride in the fact that you are doing something that you enjoy, and stop feeling guilty about it.

2.  Stop whining. As a result of the societal pressure of perceiving work as the bad guy, people are inclined to focus on the negative aspects of work and complain about them. Psychology has proven the power of self-fulfilling prophesies – how constantly labeling your job or parts of it as stressing/terrible/tiring etcetera – will make these words come true as you prime your brain into believing this is reality (Kahneman, 2012). By setting yourself the goal stop talking about the negatives, and start focusing on and expressing the positive aspects of your job, you will enjoy it more. For example, you can start by writing down one thing you liked/enjoyed at work every day, and you can become happier at work and outside of it. Or you could promise yourself only to tell friends the positive aspects of your job for a set period, and see how this might change your perspective (and I promise you your friends will welcome this change!).

3.  Seek up projects/assignments that play on your strengths. In a study, 577 people were asked to pick one of their signature strengths and use it at work in a new way every day for a week. These people reported dropped levels of depression and became vastly happier than control groups, and the effects were not shortlived: the new increased happiness levels lasted a whole six months before returning to normal (Loehr & Schwartz, 2003).

4. Challenge and stretch yourself at work. In a study of over a hundred men and women at work, it was found that the more time a person spent on challenging activities, the better was the overall quality of his/her reported experience at work. The participants in the experiment wore electronic pagers that beeped at 8 random times a day for a week, and each time it called they reported what they were doing and how they felt. The people who were more challenged at work were particularly likely to describe experience feelings such as “strong”, “active” “creative” “concentrated” and “motivated”. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p.159).

5. Seek up ways to learn things that will make you excel in your role. A study from the University of Kent (2015) found that people who identify things they need to learn or improve and take action to improve them get to experience a greater sense of control in their lives as well as a “deep and lasting source of satisfaction”. Do you think you would excel in your role if you were even better at Excel or meeting facilitation? Take a course! Through this you will get better at what you do while impressing your boss and colleagues with your motivation.

6. Set yourself specific and achievable goals. In a very recent University of Stanford study, researchers established that people feel happier when they perform goal-directed actions rather than abstract ones. The research covered six field and laboratory experiments, and the participants in the study were assigned either a concrete goal (such as making another person smile) or an abstract one (make people happy). The people from the first, concrete-action based group, reported that their actions matched their expectations, and consequently they reported increased satisfaction and higher happiness levels compared to the other group (Rudd, Aaker & Norton, 2014, p.2).

7. Invest in social relationships. Researchers across the world all agree on the fact that the most important factor for people’s happiness is their social relationships. While many of us invest time in relationships outside of work, it is time we put more time into our work relationships. You might ask yourself “How on Earth would I have time to invest in work relationships, when I hardly have time to look after my friends?” – although a valid point, I argue that you do not need to commit your evenings to work friends: it is enough to linger that extra minute at the coffee machine, ask someone how they are doing or simply putting extra time into getting to know that one colleague that you really like. This could really make a difference to your happiness levels at work, and if something bad happens outside your job, you might find yourself with an unexpected safety net that is there for you for most of your day waking hours

This blog post was written by Elinor Schmitz-Jansen at Happy People. Happy is running Happy Workplaces 2015, its annual conference, on 13th May in London. Members of the Learning Professionals Network are entitled to a £50 off ticket prices (Discount code LPN).  Simply click here 

Click here for more information on Happy Workplaces 2015.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Pyschology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Slow and Fast. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, (2003). The Power of Full Engagement. New York: Free Press.

Reeves, (2001). Happy Mondays. Jackson: Perseus Books.

Rudd, M., Aaker, J. & Norton, MI., (2014). Getting the Most out of Giving: Concretely Framing a Presocial Goal Maximizes Happiness (Forthcoming). Norton Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The University of Kent, (2015). Choosing Career. From: http://www.kent.ac.uk/careers/Choosing/career-satisfaction.html

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