How To Find Meaning In Your Work

Jun 29, 2016 1 Min Read

Do you hate your job, or know someone who hates his or hers?

If you do — you’ve got a lot of friends. A worldwide (142 countries) study done by Gallup from 2011 – 2012 found that 24% of workers were actively disengaged, 63% were disengaged, and only 13% were engaged.

In layman’s terms, this means that 24% of workers hate their jobs and probably whine about it; 63% are demotivated and just get by; and only one in eight workers actually feels excited to go to work in the morning.

I believe that one of the major causes is a lack of meaning: “Why am I really here and why am I doing this?” Disengaged people may work because they have bills to pay and children to feed — but they don’t feel for their work. It doesn’t mean anything to them deep inside.

It’s tragic, considering how much time most of us spend at work.

While I can’t claim to be an expert in workplace happiness — I have some suggestions on how people can find meaning in their work. If you’ve ever wondered how some people can be so passionate about their work, this one is for you.


1. Look for the Higher Purpose — the WHY?

I used to lead a group of engineers who would routinely fly to remote parts of the world (e.g. in the middle of the ocean and deserts) and install high-tech equipment into oil wells. It paid well, but the guys had to spend a lot of time away from their families. The work was unpredictable too — many of them had to sacrifice major events back home. Like my engineer who missed the birth of his second child.

It was the type of job that made you question your humanity. And I questioned mine too — many times. So, at the start of every year, I would write to my engineers asking if they knew why they did their jobs. Apart from making money of course.

I can’t guarantee you that it made them feel better, but my honest answer to them was: “we’re helping to power the world.” It kept me going for years. And even though I’ve left now, the team is still going strong — still helping to power the world.

Of course, not all jobs have an important “humanitarian” function. But if you look deeply enough, all work is part of an effort to meet a human need; a cause. The question is, is it a cause that you believe in?


2. Question How Work Makes You Feel, and Reflect

So maybe you hate your job. But do you hate every part of your job, or just parts of it that make you want to pull your hair out?

A lot of times, when I ask demotivated workers what they really hate, they can’t give me straight answers.

Which brings me to my next point: if you’d like to find more meaning at work, consider taking mental “checkpoints” as you do your daily tasks. When work makes you feel something — whether excitement, happiness or boredom — take note of it. Write it down if you need to.

Then, take time to periodically review your “feeling journal” at work. What tasks come naturally to you? When do you feel most alive? What would you not do even if they doubled your salary? It’ll help you realize what you’re passionate about.

If you’re not mostly doing work which you like and you’re good at — consider speaking to your bosses about a more suitable role.


3. Find Sweet Times to Balance Suffering

Popular culture paints a myth that “dream jobs” exist. That everyone has can find a “perfect-fit job” where they’ll be engaged 100% of the time, do brilliant work, and make lots of money.

But the reality is every kind of work involves something that you will not like to do. Everything worthwhile doing includes some suffering.

If you already know what sets your life on fire (refer point 2 above), try to focus more of your time and energy on those “sweet spots.” And if you can, try to delegate your pain points to someone who likes them more.

This doesn’t mean you walk into Human Resources and demand for a new set of responsibilities tailor-made for you. It’s always a balancing act between what-you-love and what-you-have-to. But even if it’s not in your formal job description, consider volunteering for extra tasks you think you’ll love.

In my experience, the happiest colleagues I knew all had side projects beyond their normal responsibilities — which they weren’t getting paid for.

But it made them really happy.


4. Build Relationships With People at Work

Said no one ever, “I hate all my colleagues and bosses, but I work here because it’s meaningful.”

Statistics back that up: A 2012 survey showed that 51% of participants stayed at a company because of their co-workers.

Because we’re social creatures, meaning is closely tied to relationships.

It doesn’t mean you’ll be happier if you work in a large company and throw drinking parties every weekend. It does mean that developing friendships with people who believe in the same vision energises you. Even if it’s just that one person. You’re comrades now; on a mission.

But what if you’re shy? If this sounds daunting to you, you can start small: Invite someone you don’t know well (whether it’s a colleague, vendor, or customer) to lunch every Friday. Don’t talk about work; just be genuinely curious about them.

Tip: Ask your colleagues for the real reason why they work. You might be really inspired from their responses.


5. Say Goodbye When You Need to

Sometimes, going through all the above doesn’t help either. Because it’s really not you; it’s them. Maybe you have a toxic boss, or a toxic environment that you really need to leave.

I believe quitting is the last resort. But if you’ve given it your best shot, and truly believe that you need to do something else — it’s the next logical step.

Just remember that the pursuit of meaning and happiness is a journey, not a destination. And while wherever you’re going won’t be perfect either, do continue to evaluate it through the points above. That way, you’ll be sure to keep moving in the right direction:



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Aaron is the founder of, where he writes about optimising time, money and relationships. He was previously head of the campus team at Leaderonomics.

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