How to Find Meaning in Your Job

UPDATED: August 14, 2018
PUBLISHED: August 15, 2018

Amy Wrzesniewski, Ph.D., a Yale professor and researcher, discovered that people have one of three visions of their work:

  1. People with a job see work as a chore and the paycheck as their reward. They work because they have to.
  2. People with a career like the concept of advancing and succeeding.
  3. People with a calling find their work fulfilling and think it feels meaningful, leverages their strengths and contributes to the greater good.

Unsurprisingly, people with a calling orientation not only find their work more rewarding, but work harder and longer because of it. And as a result, these are the people who are generally more likely to get ahead. But those who don’t have a calling mindset needn’t despair.

Related: You Don’t Have to Love What You Do…

Wrzesniewski’s most interesting finding is not just that people see their work in one of these three ways, but that it doesn’t matter what type of job one has. She found that there are doctors who see their work only as a job, and janitors who see their work as a calling. In fact, in one study of 24 administrative assistants, each orientation was represented in nearly equal thirds, even though their objective situations (job descriptions, salary and level of education) were nearly identical.

No matter what job you have, you can find meaning in it. In my consulting work with companies, I encourage employees to rewrite their job description to be more calling-focused. I have them think about how the same tasks might be written in a way that would entice others to apply for the job. The goal is not to misrepresent the work they do, but to highlight the meaning that can be derived from it.

Then I ask them to think of their own personal goals in life. How can their current job tasks be connected to this larger purpose? Researchers have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with greater meaning when they are connected to personal goals and values. The more we can align our daily tasks with personal vision, the more likely we are to see work as a calling.

You can also try this quick exercise to find a small dose of meaning in your job:

  • Grab a piece of paper, and jot down a mandatory work task you find devoid of meaning—something you dread.
  • Ask yourself what the purpose of the task is, draw an arrow and write down the answer.
  • If that answer still seems devoid of meaning, ask yourself, What does this result lead to? Write down that answer.
  • Continue this process until you find a meaningful result.

Related: What to Do If You Hate Your Job


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.