There’s a moment that, every once in a while, hits everyone. Driving to work on a Monday morning, it’s that brief half-second pause between songs when you realize that you have no plans to hang out with anyone this week, that you have no friends outside of work, and that no one’s waiting for you to come home. It’s your complete lack of excitement while pulling your favorite cereal off the shelf. It’s that emotionless, straight-faced eyebrow-raise when you get your bank statement and you see that, while there are more digits, you have no desire to spend it on anything.
It’s your total apathy when you switch on the television and you see that another maniac shot an old man, or that tens of people died in a natural disaster.
You ask yourself, “What’s the point?”
I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does. Maybe there isn’t one.
But I know that maybe I can make those moments a little less frequent. I can help you make your job more meaningful, even if you’re slicing lunch meat or cleaning toilets — both of which I’ve done.
I’ll start with an old story about three bricklayers that you probably don’t want to hear. A young boy walks up to them and asks them what they’re doing. The first man says, “I’m laying one brick on top of the other.” The second says, “I’m making six pence an hour.” The third, “I’m building a house of God.”
(Before you make any assumptions, I’m not saying you need to “accept God into your life.” I’m an atheist.)
Each bricklayer has managed to find meaning in his work. Contrary to how most people — usually priests — tell this story, I actually don’t think that the third bricklayer is any better off than the other two. All three capture the most important tenets of long-term workplace engagement. The first, “laying one brick on top of the other,” is the epitome of Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow,” a highly focused mental state in which you lose your concept of self — and your concept of time — and focus only on the activity in front of you. The second, “making $8 an hour,” also highlights an equally important, but boring, component of meaningful work: practicality. The third, “building a house of God,” represents the importance of devoting yourself to a worthwhile cause, but also investing yourself in the project’s outcome. These four concepts (flow, practicality, service, and investment) can and should be used together in order to maximize your work’s meaning. I’m positive that, if you read this guide, you will temporarily improve your experience at work; and, if you make a serious effort to incorporate it into your life, that effect will be permanent.
First, though, you need focus. As a fairly recent Gallup poll shows, only 33% of America’s workforce reports themselves as being “actively engaged.” Most people tend to blame the management, but I think it has more to do with the employee. For example, neurologist Larry Rosen has found that most students can’t focus on their work for more than three minutes at a time. When it comes to flow, too many people get caught up in only one of its eight elements: finding a sweet spot between their work and their abilities, so they tend to blame the homework, not the student’s smartphone. At your workplace, I highly doubt that you’ve been lucky enough to find challenges that perfectly match your skills, but just because your job is failing to keep you engaged doesn’t make it your job’s fault; the bricklayers are still laying brick. Take personal responsibility for your disengagement, and it will probably go away. Don’t rely on your management to recognize that you’re unhappy, because they probably don’t care. Either find a new job or quit complaining and make this one better.
There are eight elements of flow. You don’t need all of them to have a pleasurable work experience, but try to find which ones you could personally maximize. From page 48 of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow:
- The experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
- We must be able to concentrate on what we’re doing.
- The task has clear goals.
- The task provides immediate feedback.
- One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
- One has a sense of control over their actions.
- Concern for oneself disappears, but emerges stronger after the experience is over.
- The sense of the duration of time is altered.
If you’re jaded with the concept of flow, or if you’re uncertain about its practicality, then try this: Remind yourself of the second stat I listed above, that most students can’t focus on something for more than three minutes at a time, then, periodically throughout the day, ask yourself, “Am I any better?” Regularly make it a habit to practice full engagement, inside and outside of work. Watch this whole video, full-screen, without checking your phone or distracting yourself in any way:
It’s worth the time. It reminds me of the good old days of Ted Talks, back when they weren’t garbage.
While optimal engagement is a necessary ingredient for enjoyable, meaningful work, you still need to be realistic. Sometimes work is flat-out awful, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So keep in mind that, at the end of the week, you still have to pay your bills.
The bricklayers aren’t painting works of art. They don’t get air conditioning. They don’t have Pandora radio hooked up to a Bluetooth speaker.
But they do get six pence an hour.
If you have mouths to feed, money is more important than your enjoyment. I’m not going to say, “Don’t follow your passion,” because I think that, most of the time, following your passion is a great way to find meaningful work. Zookeepers, for instance, despite earning an average salary of ~$25k, still find their jobs extremely satisfying. Why? A big majority of them see their work as a “calling,” rather than a job. But some people are lucky if their passion pays anything at all, sometimes, you need to “follow the money” instead.
But if you can focus on helping others rather than making money, you’ll be better off. Luckily, there’s an easy way to do both.
This is my favorite. Injecting meaning into your job is easier than you think: Vow to give 10% of your post-tax income to the charities of your choice. Suddenly, everything you do at your job — even the most demeaning, back-breaking work — takes on a new meaning. You’re not just flipping hamburgers. You’re not just trading hours of your life for $8 a pop. You’re contributing to eradicating extreme poverty, or keeping African kids healthy, or getting American veterans off the streets.
Many people underestimate the power of this type of giving. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests charitable people are happier, even if they’re motivated purely by self-interest. That research, as with all research, is not definitive by any means, but there’s enough reason to believe its basic claims:
- Charitable giving lights up brain areas associated with happiness: “At the most basic level, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) evidence shows that giving money to charity leads to similar brain activity in regions implicated in the experience of pleasure and reward,” (page 8).
- Volunteering increases well-being: “Consistent with other correlational studies of volunteering and well-being, they found that higher levels of volunteer work were associated with higher levels of overall life satisfaction. This study, however, is unique in that it examines the relationship between happiness and volunteer work around the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, providing a quasi-experimental design. Specifically, by looking at data collected shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall but prior to the German reunification, a time when volunteering opportunities dropped dramatically in Eastern Germany, happiness of East Germans can be compared to a control group who experienced no change in their volunteer status. Using this design, the authors are able to conclude that helping others increases well-being,” (page 8).
- Even random acts of kindness can help: “In their investigation, Lyubomirsky and colleagues randomly assigned students to a no-treatment control group or to an experimental group, in which students were asked to commit five random acts of kindness a week for six weeks. As predicted, students who engaged in random acts of kindness were significantly happier than controls,” (page 9).
- And, my favorite, charitable donations: “Finally, our own recent research suggests that altruistic financial behavior, such as gift giving and charitable donations, may promote happiness . . . Analyses revealed that individuals who devoted more money to prosocial spending reported greater happiness, whereas personal spending was unrelated to happiness. Even controlling for income, higher prosocial spending was associated with greater happiness; income had an independent and similar association with happiness.” (page 10).
- Further: “We also used an experimental design to test the casual claim that spending money on others leads to higher happiness levels than spending money on oneself . . . As predicted, participants asked to spend their windfall in a prosocial fashion were happier at the end of the day than were participants in the personal spending condition,” (page 10).
If possible, invest in the company you work for.
This idea actually comes from Financial Samurai, although I don’t remember which post it comes from. If you don’t hate the company you work for (and, of course, it’s possible to buy shares), you should invest any of your leftover savings into the company you work for. Even if it’s just a tiny portion, it makes you feel like — if you’re working hard — you’re contributing to increasing the value of your company.
This is especially nice if you’re a hard-working low-level employee at a huge box store. Suddenly you’re not just mopping the floor so you’re boss won’t yell at you, you’re mopping the floor because you actually care about cleaning the place.
To recap, if you want more meaningful work, you need to focus, be realistic, vow to give a portion of your income to charity, and invest in the company you work for.
Another big one: work on forming relationships with your coworkers. This regularly ranks as one of the top reasons people enjoy their work. Since it’s so situation-dependent, though, I’m hesitant to give advice on how you can go about it.
Remember: focus, serve others, and invest in the company you work for, while remaining realistic about why you have the job in the first place. If you do that, I guarantee you you’ll have a better work experience.
If you don’t believe me, try it out for just one week. Put $100 or so into GiveDirectly, ask your manager whether you can buy more shares of your company, and schedule one to two hours of uninterrupted, focused work. I promise you that you’ll feel better about yourself, and others will notice.
Does anyone else have any ideas on how you can make your work more meaningful?