Make your work more meaningful

This post is sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

Take a look at Steve Martin’s business card. I love it because it brings to light the lack of meaning we often feel during the daily routine of work life.

When I was new to the workforce, I saw two ends of a spectrum. On one end, risking one’s life to save dying children, and on the other end, hedge-fund banking to make millions.

If you see the work world that way, then you feel compelled to choose between making good money or doing good deeds. But at this point, I don’t think the world breaks down like that. I think all jobs are meaningful.

1. Meaningfulness comes from relationships.
My introduction to this way of thinking was Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research about happiness and work (compiled into a book I like: The How of Happiness.) She found that janitors are happier than lawyers and the discrepancy arises from the amount of meaningfulness they perceived in their work.

The janitors felt that they were helping people by keeping the school running well. They knew the students and the teachers and they had a nice relationship with them: people asked for help, the janitor gave help, the person thanked the janitor.

With the lawyers, it’s the opposite. People hate having to ask a lawyer for help. They want the lawyer to solve their problems, but in general, you only call a lawyer when you have a problem you will not be able to get out of without one. So the lawyer can’t really make people feel good. On top of that, a lawyer charges by the hour so there is almost never a thank you in exchange for a small piece of work. (More rationale for ditching your dreams of law school.)

2. Meaningfulness comes from feeling some control.
Having control over one’s job and an ability to make a difference — through meeting goals, saving lives, solving problems — is what enables people to enjoy their work, according to research published in The Economist. The prestige of the given job is not nearly as important as being able to have an effect. If jobs are not challenging enough, then people are not happy because they don’t have a feeling of affecting someone else. People like being part of a group, they like being able to contribute.

Relative to the rest of life, work is predictable. Kids are totally unpredictable, health is unpredictable, friends and family are wild cards, but there are rules for work that people follow. Those generally accepted rules are what makes work a safe place to be.

3. Management creates meaning
The relationship between a boss and an employee should be very meaningful. Good management is actually about being nice. A manager’s job is to make people shine, to show them they can do more than they ever imagined and to make employees excited to come to work. Management’s job is to create meaningful work.

In the same vein, an employee’s job is to make their boss’s life better. Whatever you were hired for, whatever that job description said, the bottom line is that you are there to solve your boss’s problems. You will feel good at work if you are making your boss happy–it’s a symbiotic relationship.

4. Creating meaning yourself is empowering.
To be clear, a job does not give your life meaning. How you treat people and how you relate to communities and society is where you get your meaning. Work is just a great platform to create that meaning. You can choose whether or not you make your work meaningful. You can wait for someone else to magically anoint your job with meaning. But you will be waiting a long time. Instead, make work meaningful yourself. It’s an act of freedom, taking your life into your own hands.

5. Look for opportunities.
My step-mom had cancer for more than a decade. She had a breast removed, she went into remission, then back to the hospital, then remission. At first I thought her life was becoming crazy and how could she cope? But then I saw that the best thing for her was that she kept going to work. The stability in her life was her job. She couldn’t control the cancer, or the treatments, or her energy, but she could control her workload and she could meet her goals when she was there.

When she couldn’t be at the office, her co-workers took over her workload so her job would be there for her when she returned. Every time.

When an office comes together to support someone in crisis the whole office is infused with meaning. The strength they gave my step-mom by enabling her to come to work, in turn gave strength to the family members trying to help take care of her.

Work has meaning because it provides stability in our lives, and we create meaning by helping co-workers to use that stability to be brave and strong in the rest of life.

Look around you, all the time — look for people at work who need help with their work. Caring for your co-workers might be the most meaningful part of work for all of us.

62 replies
  1. Deena McClusky
    Deena McClusky says:

    I found being a parent very meaningful. I paid excruciatingly close attention to teaching my children and instilling in them a desire to learn, and a desire to succeed at whatever they chose to do. I made raising children into a meaningful, and rewarding job. The spillover effect was that I was able to use those same skills to train employees in a concise and effective manner. Similarly I could retrain people I had not previously trained,  by looking closely at where they were failing and constructing effective methods for them to perform those tasks in better and more efficient ways. I still find these responsibilities to be the most rewarding and most meaningful aspects of my job. Upon reflection, these are also the only areas of my job where I perform tasks that are directly helping people, since the rest of the time I do work for the benefit of lawyers, and as you previously stated, they are not happy or fulfilled people. I think many people can find something about even the most onerous of jobs that makes them feel happy or fulfilled in some manner, but do not take the time or effort to look at it in that way. I hope this article (like much of what you write) helps people to discover this aspect in their own jobs.

  2. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Penelope! Especially about “AN EMPLOYEE’S JOB IS TO MAKE THEIR BOSS’S LIFE BETTER.”

    It took me a while to figure that out, but once I fully understood it’s implications, life at work became a whole lot better.

    You see, I stopped working for APPROVAL. That’s the secret. Sure, I’m appreciative when my clients like my work. I love when that happens. But I don’t make gaining VALIDATION from my bosses or clients my priority. I work for MYSELF. Everything I do is a PERSONAL BEST. If others appreciate what I do, all the better. But I won’t assume it’s a rejection if I don’t get verbal acknowledgement for my work. The first person I answer to is ME. I can’t let myself down. If I don’t. I go home happy.

    The best part of the job, though, is relieving stress and worry from the people I work with and for. They don’t have to say they appreciate it. I can FEEL that they do, and that’s a GOOD feeling!

    You see, SUPPORTING people, as opposed to simply filling their requirements, is a very big difference. But you can’t fake it. You have to really mean it and want to do it. You have to be kind and generous in that way. And if you are, you will never be forgotten.


  3. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This post was a really nice ending to my day. It is just after 12AM and I just finished a project for work that I promised someone I would get done. If I didn’t find it meaningful I’m pretty sure I would not have taken the extra time to make sure it got finished.

  4. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    Battling cancer is battling despair. I am in that part of the world where cancer survival chances are low. So really what this post is saying is that hope gives meaning to everything you do, Step-mom going to work everyday is an act of hope, an act of finding meaning in her life and for her coworkers its an act of acknowledging it could have been any one of them instead of her. 

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a lovely comment, Sadya. Thank you. The more I understand hope — giving it and receiving it — the better a person I am. 


        • Mark Wiehenstroer
          Mark Wiehenstroer says:

          I thought of hope and faith. Later on yesterday, it occurred to me that I had worked at a business, for a short time, a long time ago, in Monrovia, CA – near the City of Hope ( ). They practice research and hope for cancer and other diseases.

  5. Alex Lickerman
    Alex Lickerman says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post.  I especially love the emphasis you place on the idea that meaning which makes us happy comes from the value we create in our relationships, i.e., for others – and that any meaning will do (the meaning we create through our work being only one of many platforms with which we can create it).

    I also think great value exists in consciously choosing a life’s mission, an overarching purpose that we define for ourselves and to which we dedicate our lives (not at the level of “write a bestselling book” but more along the lines of “fill the world with beautiful music” or “help children reach their full potential.”  Everyone, everyone, everyone has some value to provide others.  Finding it not only helps others become happier but ourselves as well.

  6. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Interesting post, though I believe you can still be in a job that is meaningful and has a lot of these factors such as positive relationships with co-workers etc, and yet not enjoy it and consider it right for you.

    I do think it’s great that people analyse their work when they are feeling a bit lost, and try to look at how meaningful it is and make it more so. At the same time, they may still decide it’s time to move on. I found it difficult to enjoy much of my working life (even though the work I did was very meaningful and helped others) until I was working for myself and then created my very own meaningfulness in the work I wanted to do.

    • Nessa
      Nessa says:

      If you are in a meaningful job with positive relationships with your coworkers and supervisors, and you’re good at what you do, and you still don’t enjoy it, might you be asking too much?

      • Rachel
        Rachel says:

        Talent has no correlation with enjoyment; you can be good at something naturally without enjoying it at all. Also, regarding the determination as to whether something is “a meaningful job,” that depends greatly on who finds meaning in it–the jobholder or his/her employer, society, etc. If the jobholder finds no meaning in it (such as my sister, a gifted pianist who found no meaning in it on a personal level, even though everyone who heard her was moved by her playing), he/she is not asking too much (which is why I support my sister’s decision to stop playing a decade ago).

        • Nessa
          Nessa says:

          Yeah, I totally realize you can be good at something and not find it enjoyable or meaningful. My question is, why not? For me, being good at something, being an authority, being part of a team instead of a cog in a wheel, are things that contribute to enjoyment and fulfillment. What that means is that even if my function is not particularly thrilling, I can still like where I am. And in this climate, if you find something you’re good at and that your employer needs and your team members respect, even if you don’t really enjoy the work itself, does it really make sense to go and find something else when your next situation is likely to be not as good or worse? I would argue that in a hierarchy in which some people spend their whole lives doing jobs they absolutely hate, it may be a bit presumptuous to give up a good thing to find your holy grail of jobs.

  7. Lindsay | The Daily Awe
    Lindsay | The Daily Awe says:

    You’re absolutely right on this one. A job without work friends and a sense of purpose = miserable. A job with tasks that aren’t the most fun or meaningful can suddenly turn interesting/fun and meaningful when you ‘re working with people you care for & respect.  

    So…the ACS pays people to blog now? Interesting.

  8. Anna
    Anna says:

    Timely post for me. I’ve been frustrated at work due to lack of control and lack of great management. Then yesterday, a co-worker, who I personally can’t stand and who isn’t good at her job, was diagnosed with cancer. When I learned of it, my first thoughts were for her and her family. But my 5th or 6th thought was, “shit, you can’t fire someone who has cancer.”

    Your post has brought me around to a better place – making me wonder how I (and my coworkers) can support her through this. And how she could be better managed by her boss to bring out the best in her work. Thank you for making me feel like less of a bad person!

  9. Garson
    Garson says:

    Thanks for the great article
    I am now in my forth decade of managing people
    By far this has been the most challenging decade
    Today people have so much access to information with Internet and phone
    connections, text, tweet, twitter.  Attention spans and focus have been a real challenge.
    How exciting is work with all this information in ones pocket and accessed with a simple click
    Making people apart of the problem and then solution is a real attention getter
    We say,  “here is the start line, there is the finish line, stay between these lines, measure the progress as they go, correct, adjust, reward.  The first hundred-yard dash may be a little painful but in no time we are running them in the low 13’s”  Sport analogy
    My mom would say; “find a job that you really love, work and its contribution to society will reward you and those around you” she went back to school at 50 and got her engineering degree.  We attended the same university, UBC in the 70’s.  It was amazing running into her on campus!!!
    Again thanks

  10. Mtnscubagirl
    Mtnscubagirl says:

    I was hospitalized several time during the past two years with severe depression before finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II and put on the right medication. My coworkers stepped up for me each time carrying my workload as well as theirs until I returned. Not an easy job for newspaper reporters trying to write extra stories. The people I work with mean everything to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for sharing this story. I think more co-workers are willing to step up when they hear it’s common. I think people get nervous that they are doing something too difficult. But in fact, it doesn’t feel as hard when you’re doing it because you’re making such a huge difference in someone’s life. 


  11. Mary Beth Williams
    Mary Beth Williams says:

    This is a great post and I’ve found what you say to be true, I always come away from whatever job I’m doing with a sense of meaning only if I have been of service to others in some way…..I find that joy comes with helping others, no matter what position we hold in life.  Thank you for this beautiful post.  

  12. Naomi Niles
    Naomi Niles says:

    I totally agree. One of the most beautiful things in life is the feeling of being useful to someone. 

    And one of the destructive things in life is not feeling like an active contributor to society. 

  13. Kate
    Kate says:

    I couldn’t agree more to what you have written above ! I truly believe in the fact that job has the potential to provide stability in life and that if job is not challenging it wouldn’t yield any happiness because the feeling of affecting someone doesn’t comes.It’s all psychological, the work one is into should provide that mental happiness without which work no longer remains work, it reduces to a mere need for some and  plague for others.
    Check this career test if you wish –
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    How well do you know yourself and your abilities?

  14. Kathy Ver Eecke
    Kathy Ver Eecke says:

    “Meaningfulness comes from a sense of control.” Couldn’t agree with you more. 

    I think this is why employees in startups are often more engaged in their work than people working for large corporations. Add the ‘affecting’ something goal and Yahtzee! Most startup employees are affecting the business everyday, with every task. 

    I’m sure you’ve seen Dan Pink’s quick draw summary of what motivates employees (half the globe did, you were prob the first), but on the very off chance you, or your readers, didn’t : Talks about the fact that it isn’t $$ that motivate employees, it’s having a sense of control, affecting the business, etc. 

  15. Lone Worker
    Lone Worker says:

    But what about people who don’t hve any co-workers? In my paid employment I work an eight hour day. I’m based in an office, but I work alone. I probably see another person for a couple of hours a week. I answer the phone, but only have about three people I chat with regularly, and have never met any of them.

    Where do I find mean in my work, when the work itslef (accounts, running the business) is pretty meaningless?

    • Lisa Sansom
      Lisa Sansom says:

      Meaning is where you  make it. Any job has the potential to be meaningful – it’s about how you view it and frame it. It doesn’t have to be about co-workers. What is the bigger purpose of your job? What is the value it delivers to others? What are the benefits to society? in the example that Penelope gives above, a school janitor can easily view his work as meaningless. It never ends, it is about all of the dirt and grime, those stupid kids keep tracking mud into the school and never learn and never contribute to keeping things clean. No one really talks to him or asks his opinion about kids (and he knows a lot about the kids because he sees them when no one else does) or about how to run the school (ditto). And yet, that same janitor can see his work as incredibly meaningful – an opportunity to contribute to a well-educated society, with kids who will grow up and do amazing things.

      I challenge you to find the inherent meaning in your work as well as to create meaning in your work. If you do accounts and run the business, then I would say you have a lot of potential for meaning there… 

      • Jerrysandusky
        Jerrysandusky says:

        “swimmy, sammy, swammy, swanson..? Oh, Samsonite! It says right on the briefcase. She must be unlisted.”

  16. Terri
    Terri says:

    I read that individuals who undergo maiming injuries are eventually as happy as they were pre-accident. I guess that tells us a bit about human nature.

  17. Angel Cruz
    Angel Cruz says:

    This is a great article with a very impact full message behind it. Finding true meaning behind your craft is really important because its no longer called a job when you love what you do. I enjoyed reading the content keep it up!

    Webmaster of WasteKing

  18. Crustycrab
    Crustycrab says:

    but what about little kittens and funny, articulate mimes in my office?? Can I imagine them as people and ask them to eat Cap-N-Crunch cereal in my cubicle?? This would really be helpful if so, I really hope it will be true from your wizard mouth. Oh wonderful wizard trunk, give your blessing and I will invite them in for cereal and seances for the tree king and witchworm. Thank you so much if you help my tummy/tuber ache O’ lion of the seadom.
    -Crab O Pattie

  19. Crustycrab
    Crustycrab says:

    but what about little kittens and funny, articulate mimes in my office?? Can I imagine them as people and ask them to eat Cap-N-Crunch cereal in my cubicle?? This would really be helpful if so, I really hope it will be true from your wizard mouth. Oh wonderful wizard trunk, give your blessing and I will invite them in for cereal and seances for the tree king and witchworm. Thank you so much if you help my tummy/tuber ache O’ lion of the seadom.
    -Crab O Pattie

  20. Susan
    Susan says:

    Does “This post is sponsored by the American Cancer Society” mean that the ACS contributed to your website? I’m not very happy about the idea that my contributions to the ACS are going to sponsor your blog. I like your blog, but I contribute to the ACS to support people with cancer, and research into cancer, not to support blogs that make a tangential reference to cancer. 

    • The Reporter
      The Reporter says:

      I don’t work for ACS, but I know bringing awareness is a big part of what they do.  Penelope’s blog reaches a lot of people, so they’re just spreading the word through her blog.   I have a brother with disabilities, and I plan on addressing his issues on my blog at some point to bring awareness to my circle of readers.

    • Nessa
      Nessa says:

      Campaigning in all its forms is one of the most important steps to keeping non-profit organizations afloat. It’s not an option, it’s a necessity. Feel free to look for a non-profit that won’t use any portion of your donation for marketing or administration costs (since the people who run the non-profit’s offices must be given salaries, even though they aren’t doing any important cancer research) but I doubt you will find one.

  21. -k-
    -k- says:

    This piece conflates different kinds of meaning. People clearly *want* to mix the two up–this piece will be popular, because it soothes those nagging doubts–but helping the guys in Accounting by filling out your expense reports on time or bringing a casserole to Sue in HR after her knee surgery is really *not* the same thing as devoting a significant amount of your time to doing actual “good deeds”. It’s entirely possible to find meaning in work relationships and still be doing something that is utterly unimportant or even destructive on a larger scale.

    I actually think 1-5 are great and potentially really helpful on their own merits- just can’t get on board with setting them up to be something more than they are.

  22. Karl Staib
    Karl Staib says:

    Too often we forget why we are really doing our work. It’s not to see more crap. It’s to make people’s lives better. We build relationships because it’s ingrained in our DNA. We know if we make enough people angry, we won’t be welcomed back. So we have to make people feel loved so they want to make us feel loved. The circle will always continue in this way.

    Loved the last section. Helped tie everything together.

  23. Karl Staib
    Karl Staib says:

    Too often we forget why we are really doing our work. It’s not to see more crap. It’s to make people’s lives better. We build relationships because it’s ingrained in our DNA. We know if we make enough people angry, we won’t be welcomed back. So we have to make people feel loved so they want to make us feel loved. The circle will always continue in this way.

    Loved the last section. Helped tie everything together.

  24. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    1st I am so happy to see this post being sponsored by ACS as I worked for them in the past!

    2nd I lost my mom to Breast Cancer back in June 2010 and she was just like your step mom; she could control her work and that is what she did. She loved going to work everyday; she would even go straight from Chemo treatments. She had no control over the disease and it frustrated her, but she made sure my sister and I knew that we could control our work lives.

    3rd Overall great post and thank you for sharing.

  25. The Reporter
    The Reporter says:

    Being a lawyer is a lot like being a dentist.  You don’t want to go because it might be painful and uncomfortable, but someone has to pull your tooth.   Otherwise, the tooth will continue to rot and fester in your mouth.  It will eat you up inside.  It’s a necessary job, although unpleasant and thankless at times.  Sometimes, legal measures is the only way to reach resolution to what’s eating you up inside.

    If people treated each other better, and had better dental hygiene, we wouldn’t need as many lawyers and dentists.

  26. Sherri
    Sherri says:

    This reminds me a little of our sermon at our church today: The WHYS of what you do usually determine the LENGTH that you do it. Obviously, if you enjoy something you continue to do it. Anyway…great post and yes, Meaningfulness comes from relationships – BECAUSE PEOPLE MATTER.

  27. Kelly@HealthyFinanceNews
    Kelly@HealthyFinanceNews says:

    I love how this blog about meaningful work addresses more than what your work can accomplish for yourself, but rather what it can help accomplish for others, which in turn helps you feel better about what you do. #4 is the most valuable thing to keep in mind. So many people lose sight of what is actually important, and helping others is certainly the most significant and beneficial aspect of any kind of work you do. Reaching goals for your own happiness is vital, but doing work that is aimed at improving live’s of others is truly the payoff of which any of us should strive for in our work. Thanks for theseinsightful  ideas!

  28. Mena Aboud
    Mena Aboud says:

    This is very true great article. :).
    thank you for lighting that up. as i was trying to do so with co-colleges not even in work.  about exchanging information and helping each other but what i get in return is fear as i guess. from them.

  29. Mark Hayes
    Mark Hayes says:

    Fantastic article! I came for Steve Martin’s hilarious business card, but I stayed for the thoughtful insight. One of your best posts yet, Penelope – I think. 

    Anyone else notice that at the end of the article, there’s a little American Cancer Society badge that reads “The Official Sponsor of Birthdays” ? Genius. 

  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    my best friend’s mom makes $77 an hour on the computer. She has been out of job for 9 months but last month her check was $7487 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read about it here

  31. Ryan Critchett
    Ryan Critchett says:

    Really awesome post. The bottom line is, I think most of us are too focused on getting results, and doing the everyday formulaic actions that we forget about the most important things: the things that actually have meaning.

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