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Flourishing or Soulless Work?

By on January 18, 2008 – 4:15 pm  One Comment

Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.

Timothy's articles are here and here.

“Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.”
Albert Camus

I have been caught up recently in reading different books and articles about the law industry in order to get a more in-depth understanding of my new, interesting job. Accidentally, I came across an article from another PPND author Dave Shearon, Seven Positive Psychology Steps to Thriving in Law School. I am pretty inspired by the passage, particularly his last step – Remember (or find out) why you want to be a lawyer. His article appears to offer an answer to why some people would find their work soulless.

From Dave’s article:

If you know why you went to law school, keep it in mind. Learn more about the opportunities in that type of practice…
If you don’t know why you went to law school… now is a good time to start finding your own vision.

In my last article, I mentioned:

When lawyers are carrying out their responsibilities, it is often better for them to think not solely about meeting billing targets, but also about their original missions and beliefs in choosing law.

Yes! When we talk about applying positive psychology to the work place, we do care about “the reason you choose your career.” But why? According to Martin Seligman, the life satisfaction formula consists of Pleasure + Engagement + Meaning. Given this definition, if we are to live a flourishing life, one of the key questions that we have to address is “why we have to do this?” – what is the meaning to me of choosing this career and devoting my time and hard work to this particular industry?

To me, there isn’t any soulless work; every kind of work is meaningful. So if I could rephrase what Camus said, it would be: when you think your work is soulless, life stifles and dies. And there are three crises that I think would make people feel that their work is soulless.

Crisis 1 – One never thinks about why he/she chooses the work
Crisis 2 – One over-concentrates on pursuing external instead of intrinsic goals when one engages in the work
Crisis 3 – One becomes mechanized after years of work, leaving the meaning of work behind.

Soulful work - or not?

Explanation of Crisis 1: Never Thinking about the Choice

It might be acceptable for university students to choose a major mindlessly as they are still young and naive. When it comes to career, however, we should bear the responsibility to ourselves and respect the career that we have chosen. Do not let ourselves regret choosing something we do not like without considering its meaning. To achieve what Brief and Nord (1990) have described – “one’s thinking process with respect to [the] reason for which he works and … intend[s] to accomplish or realize through work” – we have to seek the meaning of the work we choose and see if it fits our interests. Yes, it might not be easy to figure out the meaning, yet with the help of psychological tests such as Career Development Inventory or Self-Directed Search, it would be easier for us to find out our preferences.

Explanation of Crisis 2: Pursuing Extrinsic instead of Intrinsic Goals

Many people work very hard solely for the opportunities of promotion, higher salary and status, competition with counterparts, recognition from others, or even fulfilling parents’ expectations. According to Deci and Ryan (1985), these motivations are all “extrinsic” in the sense that they are rewards external to the individual. On the contrary, Deci and Ryan also proposed some “intrinsic” motivations which are inherently interesting or enjoyable, such as the feeling of competency and self-worth. Understanding and appreciating the meaning of work definitely brings intrinsic motivations. Compared to extrinsic ones, intrinsic motivations are suggested by researchers to enhance employee well-being and job satisfaction – such that you will never find your work soulless.

Explanation of Crisis 3: Habituated to Work

After devoting time and effort to the same job for a long time, some of us could become habituated to our work. We may then gradually forget about the meaning of the job or the reason we choose the job in the first place and see working as a ritual. When you find the meaning in work lost on your journey of work, what Maslach and her colleagues examine might happen on you – you might have negative, callous, or detached attitudes toward the job, which would in turn lead to job burnout that is associated with an array of physical and psychological problems.

A career is a lifelong process that includes different transitions. I am trying to apply the above three crises of soulless work to different stages across the lifespan. Crisis 1 usually happens to young adults who are freshly graduated and who may not give much careful consideration to their career choice. People who work very hard pursuing success in their career would be likely to encounter crisis 2 if they solely define success in terms of achieving external goals set by parents, peers, organizations or society, but not accomplishments that are personally meaningful (Mirvis and Hall, 1996), and crisis 3 is likely to happen to people in their mid-lives who have been working for a long time (refer to The seasons of a man’s life by Levinson et al.).

Going back to Dave Shearon’s suggestion to remember or find out WHY you chose to be a lawyer, this should not only apply to people working (or going to work) in the law industry, but should generalize to every employee: why you choose to become a teacher, police, banker, politician, researcher, etc.

Find out the meaning, reflect on those thoughts, and keep them in mind. You may then become immune to the feeling of soullessness and may live an abundant life.


Brief, A.P. and Nord, W.R. (Eds) (1990). Meanings of Occupational Work: A Collection of Essays (Issues in Organization and Management Series), Lexington Books, Lexington, MA.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum.

Holland, J. L. (1996). The occupations finder (The self-directed search). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Levinson, D. J., Darrow, C. M., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H., & McKee, B. (1978). The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Knopf.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

Maslach, C. (1997). The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mirvis, PH. And Hall, D.T. (1996). Psychological Success and the Boundaryless Career. In M. B. Arthur & D. M. Rousseau (Eds), The Boundaryless Career: A New Employment Principle for a New Organizational Era (pp. 237-255). New York: Oxford University Press.

Super, D. E., Thompson, A. S., Lindeman, R. H., Jordaan, J. P., & Myers, R. A. (1981). Career Development Inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Soulful work or not? courtesy of Marco Bellucci
Protected courtesy of h.koppdelaney

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