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Meaningful Work as Part of the Meaningful Life

written by Kathryn Britton July 7, 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

During working years, life satisfaction can be affected by the level of meaning people find in their work. People put more energy into jobs that they believe contribute positively to the world. They are also more resilient in the face of setbacks.

Meaningful work is as important as pay and security – and perhaps more so. (O’Brien, 1992)

Amy Wrzesniewski (2003) describes three different work orientations that affect disposition to find meaningfulness in work.

  • Job: Work as source of material benefits that enable other parts of life. Major satisfaction comes from hobbies and relationships outside work. The meaning of work is primarily what it contributes to outside domains of life.
  • Career: Work as a source of advancement, prestige, and status. People with a career calling often have a willingness to make sacrifices for work advancement that others would not make.
  • Calling: Work as an end in itself with a belief that it contributes to the greater good. A garbage collector who sees the work as making the world a cleaner, healthier place could have a Calling orientation. People with this orientation tend to experience more meaning from working.

In surveys, people are remarkably unambiguous about their work orientation. All three orientations are found at all levels in a given hierarchy. Side comment: people often interpret other people’s behavior according to their own orientations. Thus people with Career orientations tend to have trouble understanding why others aren’t driven in the same way and may assume there is competition where none actually exists.

Michael Pratt

Michael Pratt

Blake Ashforth

Blake Ashforth

Michael Pratt and Blake Ashforth (2003) explain that an individual’s sense of meaningfulness in work can come from different sources:

  • meaning “in working” – a sense that the job contributes to the greater good
  • meaning “at work” — a sense that one is enabling others to contribute and/or achieve satisfaction
  • a combination of the two.

The figure below is an adaptation of Figure 20.1, An Overview of Creating Meaningfulness in Working and at Work from an Identity Perspective, in their article.

Meaning At and In Work

Organizational Interventions

Wrzesniewski (2003, p. 303) argues that experience of meaning at work is malleable through job recrafting where people can change the way they

  • approach the tasks in their work
  • increase or decrease the number and kinds of tasks they do as part of their job
  • change the number of relationships they have with others they encounter at work

She has a great example of an office cleaner recrafting her job by caring for the plants for people who are away or do not have green thumbs.

Organizations can encourage or inhibit job crafting to form meaning. People are more likely to identify with purposes that are broader than profit. The following two organizational approaches to establishing a shared and valued purpose address both aspects of Pratt and Ashforth’s work and can be used separately or in combination. Since some people are more likely to experience meaning in working and others to experience meaning at work, both approaches can be important.

  1. Articulating what the group contributes to the organization and the wider world and then relating every job to the shared purpose so that people see meaning in their tasks and roles.
  2. Creating a family-like atmosphere at work that helps people experience meaning by making each other successful

Articulating a shared and valued purpose

There are various ways to help an organizations articulate a clear purposes phrased in simple words that people can remember. Examples include:

  • brainstorming in groups
  • sending out a challenge to people in the group and then letting group members vote on submissions,
  • asking people to think about who they picture using their product and how the product makes a difference to those people.

To get started, it can help to have people be very tangible and specific. Workers in food industries can imagine people enjoying their products. In one brainstorming session, a group that makes software products that manage other computer systems described their mission as, “We make it so systems administrators can go to their children’s soccer games without worrying about being called back to work to deal with problems.”

In a second draft, it makes sense to be more general and abstract. For example, the goal of the software team could be rephrased, “We take worry out of systems management and help our customers provide consistent service to their customers.”

Once the purpose is in words, it is time for everyone to think about how he or she contributes to the purpose. “Seemingly small tasks can have tremendous personal meaning if they are framed as connection to something larger.” (Emmons, 1999). For example, someone working on globalizing a software product might rephrase the above purpose in personal terms, “I make it easier for operators around the world to understand this product and use it reliably to provide consistent service to their customers.”

Creating a family-like atmosphere

Some people derive most of their meaning in their jobs from their loyalty to the rest of the group. They think of their purpose in terms of making the team succeed. They have a need to belong and be part of a community. Here are some actions that help this form of meaning-making:

  • Downplay internal competition and recognize collective achievement.
  • Encourage social gatherings where people learn to know each other as more than just fellow workers.
  • Encourage high-quality connections that build trust, respect and openness (Dutton, 2003)..


Meaningful work can be an important part of the Meaningful Life, one of the three avenues to happiness described by Seligman. There are actions that individuals and organizations can take to make meaningful work more likely.


Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

O’Brien, C.A., III (1982). Changing meanings at work. In J. F. Hartley & G. M. Stephenson, (Eds.), Employment Relations: The Psychology of Influence and Control at Work. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Pratt, M. G. & Ashforth, B. E. (2003). Fostering meaningfulness in working and at work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, and R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 309-327). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Wrzesniewski, A. (2003). Finding positive meaning in work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, and R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 296-308). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

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