Before you give notice and go on a vision quest, consider this: Fulfillment doesn’t require big change, says research by Julian De Freitas and colleagues. In fact, you can find more meaning even in a job you don’t love.
It’s a philosophical debate as old as time: What is the secret to leading a meaningful life?
For many, the question gained new urgency after years of social distancing and upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic. After surviving a public health threat that has killed more than 1 million people in the US, people really want to live their best lives—right now.
“I believe that the pandemic caused people to re-evaluate whether their work is meaningful,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Julian De Freitas. “Some compared their work to urgent pandemic relief efforts and concluded that their work was no longer sufficiently impactful. Others no longer experienced the pleasures of their workplace environments, leading them to realize that the work itself was not sufficiently fulfilling.”
The threat of a potentially deadly virus inspired many people to change careers, move closer to their families, or even climb Mount Everest. But does meaningfulness require so much change and effort? Across six experiments, De Freitas and his colleagues found that meaningfulness really can come from the little things, even seemingly pointless ones, as long as they bring fulfillment.
Feeling as though one is leading a meaningful life is a bellwether for broader emotional wellbeing, with those who feel they are leading meaningful lives displaying superior mental and physical health. Making work meaningful can also be key for companies looking to retain employees in a labor market that has many workers fleeing positions in hopes of finding something better.
De Freitas partnered with Michael Prinzing, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, and Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on the study, “The Ordinary Concept of a Meaningful Life,” published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Is the restaurant owner fulfilled?
In one of their first experiments, De Freitas and his colleagues gave about 400 participants different vignettes, one of which described Ariana, a fictional restaurant owner. The experiments looked at those scenarios through the lens of two factors: fulfillment and contribution.
“The way psychologists have typically studied the importance of meaningfulness is to ask people how meaningful their life is, but this doesn’t allow us to understand how they define a meaningful life in the first place,” De Freitas says.
“IMPACT CAN BE SUBJECTIVE. YOU MAY FEEL VERY UPLIFTED WHILE PAINTING, BUT THE PAINTINGS COULD BE ATROCIOUS.”
In the fulfilled condition, Ariana loved her job; in the unfulfilled condition, she hated it. In the high contribution condition, Ariana provided meals to local homeless people; in the low contribution condition, she ate by herself at night.
About 74 percent of participants found Ariana’s life meaningful when she didn’t enjoy her job but contributed to society, and 90 percent found her life meaningful when she enjoyed her job but didn’t contribute to society, showing that contribution and enjoyment independently contribute to a meaningful life. Interestingly, participants thought that Ariana herself only found her life meaningful when she was fulfilled; it did not matter whether she was making a high or low contribution to society.
Is your work interesting?
But what happens if you spend your life doing activities most people find senseless—such as copying the dictionary or collecting rubber bands? Do people still think your life is meaningful?
“Impact can be subjective,” De Freitas points out. “You may feel very uplifted while painting, but the paintings could be atrocious.”
In a second study, the research team examined how the “sensibility” of a person’s activities affects how meaningful people thought the person’s life was. This time, participants were told about people like Naomi, who either painted the buildings in her neighborhood (sensible) or counted bricks in those buildings (senseless).
The majority of participants, 66 percent, thought Naomi’s life was still meaningful if she was counting bricks in buildings, so long as she was happy doing it. However, only 36 percent of participants found Naomi’s life meaningful when she was doing something sensible that she didn’t enjoy.
The takeaway: If someone doesn’t enjoy an activity, even if it’s sensible, people may believe that their life is not meaningful. Conversely, it’s possible for someone to find real meaning from seemingly senseless sources, so long as they are fulfilled.
Can you lead a meaningful life if you’re evil?
But what if you cause harm? Is your life still considered meaningful?
In a final experiment, the researchers examined the role of morality. Participants were told about Ariana, a fictional executive for a very profitable pharmaceutical company, who either reduced the cost of overpriced drugs (moral condition) or drove patients into debt by increasing prices (immoral condition).
Only 19 percent of participants said Ariana’s life was meaningful when she drove patients into debt by increasing prices. By contrast, 83 percent of respondents said that even if Ariana didn’t feel fulfilled, but reduced the cost of overpriced drugs, her life was meaningful.
These results remained consistent when the researchers tested other scenarios, such as someone who helped the homeless versus harassed them.
Making a life more meaningful
The research results have several implications for the real world, De Freitas notes. For example, the findings suggest that companies contribute to customers’ well-being when they create products that are fulfilling to use, help people make a positive impact, or, even better, achieve both.
“ALTHOUGH WE SHOULD STRIVE TO LEAD A LIFE THAT BOTH MAKES US HAPPY AND CREATES POSITIVE IMPACT, EACH ON ITS OWN STILL HELPS TOWARD MAKING YOUR LIFE SEEM MORE MEANINGFUL.”
“If you’re selling an electric car, make it a pleasure to ride in,” De Freitas says.
On a more personal level, De Freitas hopes that people will both be cautioned and find solace from two insights in particular:
Employees and managers can disagree on impact. Although employees and managers may both think the impact of a person’s work is important, this does not mean they will agree about when an employee is doing meaningful work. “This is because in an organization the disagreements may be around what counts as impact,” De Freitas says, noting that managers need to communicate the organization’s higher mission so that they can clarify an employee’s role in achieving it.
It doesn’t take much to live a life with more meaning. If people only have one ingredient of a meaningful life, they can take comfort in the fact that there is still meaning in a job they don’t enjoy that makes a positive difference in the world, or in enjoying a hobby that doesn’t make a large impact.
“Although we should strive to lead a life that both makes us happy and creates positive impact, each on its own still helps toward making your life seem more meaningful,” De Freitas says. “With that said, if you must choose, go with what makes you happy.”
Read More here https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/you-dont-have-to-quit-your-job-to-find-more-meaning-in-life by Shalene Gupta