It might alarm you to realise just how much of your life you’re going to spend at work. For the average person, it adds up to over 90,000 hours. Even counting weekends and holidays, that’s over a third of all your waking hours across your working life. Given this, it’s going to be hard to find much fulfilment in the rest of your life if you’re reluctant to go to work every day. If you hate your job, or even if you don’t but are really only turning up for the pay cheque, then for your own sanity you need to change something.
The most obvious thing to do is to look for a more meaningful job. Which really means finding one that has a clear purpose. The evidence is very clear on this point – the people who work for not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises tend to be much more satisfied with their jobs and much happier with their lives. And it’s not that happier people tend to gravitate towards this kind of work either, the effect is seen for people with a range of temperaments. As Arthur Brooks has said “the happiest people feel like they are needed”. In contrast, thinking your work is pointless is a recipe for misery.
If you can’t find a more meaningful job then it might be time to look for more meaning in your current one. Here the social sciences are useful because they teach us, categorically, that the meaning we find in our work has less to do with the task than with how we think about it. For instance, focusing on the larger purpose your organisation serves rather than the details of your job in isolation.
There is a famous story about how, during a visit to the NASA Space Center in Houston, President John F Kennedy stopped to talk to janitor who was holding a broom. JFK introduced himself in his usual inimitable way (“Hi, I’m Jack…) and asked the janitor what he was doing. To which the janitor replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. The janitor didn’t see his job as just sweeping floors, but as playing a small role in that giant leap for mankind.
Reframing your job in terms of a greater purpose like this will certainly help you find more meaning in it. You can start from Steve Jobs’ brilliant line about the kind of work that makes “a little dent in the universe” and focus on how yours might leave its own mark.
Framing certainly matters but changing the narrative is unlikely to be enough on its own (even if you’re helping put a man on the moon, there will still be days when the work grates). What you also need to do is look for moments of meaning, either in your day or across the week. This is the third tip from the social sciences, and it stresses how you can pursue these moments of meaning by stretching yourself. Look for ways that you can take on more responsibility or volunteer for those projects and tasks that are at the outer limit of your ability. Remember that you’re not doing this to lift your workplace’s performance but because it will be good for your sanity.
Interestingly, the line about denting the universe by Steve Jobs is only part of what he actually said. Jobs knew the value of stretching to bring out the best in all of us, and he was clear that “at Apple [we look for] someone who really wants to get in a little over his (sic) head and make a little dent in the universe”. It’s great advice, and we should all spend more time getting in a little over our heads.
The working hours statistics are from “What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work?” on the ReviseSociology website (https://revisesociology.com/2016/08/16/percentage-life-work/).
The research about people working for not-for-profits and social enterprises is Martin Binder’s (2016) “…Do it with joy!” – Subjective well-being outcomes of working in non-profit organizations”, Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 54, Pages 64-84.
The Arthur Brooks’ quote is in Uri Fridman’s (2006) “7 Ways to Find Meaning at Work”, The Atlantic July 4th 2016. The point that “it’s not that happier people tend to gravitate towards this kind of work either” is about ensuring the result is not a product of selection bias, which is the kind of bias introduced by how the people in the study are selected.
The research about the difference between the task and how we perceive it is in Brent Ross, Kathryn Dekas, and Amy Wrzesniewski’s (2010). “On the Meaning of Work: A Theoretical Integration and Review” in Research in Organizational Behavior 30, 91–127. That review is the best summary of the research about work and meaning you’ll find.
The NASA story is famous but also undoubtedly apocryphal. There is a good explanation of why it can’t be true here: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-name-of-the-janitor-at-NASA-who-when-asked-about-his-role-by-President-Kennedy-said-he-was-helping-to-put-a-man-on-the-moon. The NASA Space Center in Houston is now known as the Kennedy Space Center in JFK’s honour but, for obvious reasons, wasn’t called that when Kennedy visited.
The Steve Jobs quote comes from – and I’m not making this up – the February 1985 issue of Playboy. I was only reading it for the references. And the reference is “Playboy Interview: Steven Jobs”, Playboy, Vol 32 (2) pages 49-58, 70, 174-184. The ‘dent in the universe’ line is on page 58.
The piece about the impact that day-to-day irritations have on satisfaction at work is from Jeremy Dean’s (2011) “10 Psychological Keys to Job Satisfaction” from Jeremy’s PsyBlog (https://www.spring.org.uk/2011/07/10-psychological-keys-to-job-satisfaction.php). The PsyBlog is a great resource and well worth bookmarking.