Home All Meaningful Work as Part of the Meaningful Life

Meaningful Work as Part of the Meaningful Life

written by Kathryn Britton 7 July 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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. Her Sit Write Share website has resources for writers. 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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Senia Maymin 7 July 2008 - 12:54 pm

Hi Kathryn,

I especially like your side comment, and I find that to be so true in practice: people with Career orientations think that everyone has a Career orientation; people with Calling orientations think others are the same; same with people with Job orientations. It is very interesting.

I know a person with a Job orientation who’s fine with the work – there’s nothing grand about it, but the person doesn’t want anything grand. Also, the same person assumes that everyone else is just doing a job. Interesting.

It highlights two of the biggest ideas I’ve found in psychology:
* in so many ways, people are not like each other
* in many ways, people are like each other


Christine Duvivier 8 July 2008 - 7:48 am

Great article, Kathryn! Thanks for articulating it so clearly. Christine

Jeff Dustin 8 July 2008 - 11:34 am


I’m concerned about people who recraft a less than adequately paying job as a calling. Why? Economic justice. I used to work at a laundrymat. We washed camp kids’ dirty undies overnight and shipped them to the camp for the next day. The job paid minimum wage. It was my first job and to put it bluntly, it sucked.

Let’s say I recrafted that work into my life calling. Would I have remained a laundrymat worker instead of reaching my (admittedly conjectural) potential? I think I would have. Instead I saw it for what it was to me, a dead-end short-term gig.

I suppose if you feel that you’ve reached your career apex, then recrafting a job into a calling makes total sense.

Just wanted to share my thinking with you.

Kathryn Britton 8 July 2008 - 12:20 pm


A Calling Orientation to work is not equivalent to having the work be your life’s calling. I believe it is possible to have any of the three orientations towards jobs that are just waypoints in your work history.

So for your first laundrymat job, here’s one possible way for each of the different orientations to have played out:

Job: It earned you money that you spent on other things. You didn’t rely on it for satisfaction.

Career: You saw it as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and pick up an experience that would be useful to you later in your career — knowing firsthand what a minimum wage job was like. (Maybe you’d become a labor organizer as your career????)

Calling: You were able to get satisfaction from thinking about kids getting fresh undies every day, even though you knew you weren’t going to be doing it for more than the summer.

(Reminds me of a childhood story — about a friend of my mother’s who exclaimed with surprise that her 10-year-old son came home from camp with clean underwear, my mother responding that he probably never changed out of the first pair, which turned out to be the case. My mother had prior experience. What a clean camp you worked for!)

Maybe experiencing a dead end short term gig as a calling is a bit like the song – If you can’t be with the one you love, Love the one you’re with….

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with having a job orientation to a job. Some people just achieve their meaning elsewhere.

As for economic justice, that’s another orthogonal issue. Amy Wrzesniewski (I am beginning to learn to spell it) found that about a third of the people she studied were in each category — and that included people low in the hierarchy as well as high.

Thanks for sharing. What do you think about my response?

Jeff Dustin 8 July 2008 - 12:36 pm


I think it is smashing good! One hallmark of your writing is its attention to detail and thoroughness, not to mention rapid turnaround. IBM must miss you! I was under the misconception that having a calling was the same as a calling orientation. I cite Seligman’s AH story about the hospital orderly making his life work helping catatonics see beauty upon waking. That seemed to suggest that the orderly was making the job of cleaning into a satisfying craft…and planning to stay with it.

Consider that one of Seligman/Wrzesniewski criteria for a calling is that you’d recommend your friends and family to do the same thing and another is that you spend loads of free time attending conferences, boning up on the trade, etc.

Yeah, I get it about the hierarchy and the thirds in each category bit. That is surprising. Maybe they’ve gotten used to the perks at the higher end of the payscale and have habituated?

Is your work as a coach a calling?

Jeff Dustin 8 July 2008 - 12:42 pm

I just found a cool site where people can practice the Three blessings exercise.

Here it is:

Kathryn Britton 8 July 2008 - 2:26 pm


I think that associating the calling orientation to spending free time going to conferences is perhaps an artifact of the kinds of people doing the writing.

A calling orientation is like intrinsic motivation as described by Deci and Ryan —

That is, you do the activity for its own sake.

So I’m not sure I understand your comment about getting habituated to perks. What orientation would come of that?

Yes, I have a calling orientation toward applying positive psychology — including coaching. There’s no career ladder that I’m climbing — though I might get some ‘status’ from my association with PPND — and I made more money as a computer scientist. However, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of work to my family, most of whom are introverts and would be miserable doing it.


Kathryn Britton 8 July 2008 - 2:27 pm

Thanks, Christine! I appreciate your feedback.

Wayne Jencke 8 July 2008 - 4:17 pm

Many people are socialised to believe that you have to find meaning at work.

When you let people know that the reality is that most people don’t find work meaningful then it becomes easier for them. I tend to work on peoples lives outside work – they have more control over that – and there seems to be a flow on effect into their work lives.

Jeff Dustin 8 July 2008 - 5:01 pm


Re: the perks comment. I know that when I first entered the Navy, I saw the job as a calling, a noble venture. Then later I think it morphed into a career…a way to advance and make a decent middle class wage. I personally became accustomed to the level of pay fairly quickly and soon became disenchanted with the enterprise. I saw the work I did as detrimental to my well-being and to the globe. It was less than a job, it was an albatross.

My brother works in a corporate job where he is well-paid. At first it impressed him that he had status and was the best paid in our family. It wore off, especially when his career stopped progressing.

If you are well-paid with a high status job, you might at first see the profitable job as a calling. I don’t think that kind of calling orientation lasts. I can think of many career changers who went into a career for the money and left almost as quickly.

Senia Maymin 9 July 2008 - 12:59 am

Jeff, I like that three blessings site – I saw your entry in there. Nice. Good find!

Kathryn, I really liked your distinction between calling and calling orientation.

Kathryn Britton 9 July 2008 - 9:15 am

I think you make a very good point — that work is not the only place to find meaning, and may not be the best place for a given person. I wonder if there is any research about the relative likelihood of experiencing meaning at work or elsewhere — as Csikszentmihalyi has for flow.

I believe, however, that finding a shared and valued purpose is an important and unifying intervention for a group. In terms of evidence, there are always the questions from the Gallup 12 that I think are very related:

Q8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.

Q9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

According to the Harter, Schmidt & Keyes (2003), in Gallup research, Q8 has a positive generalizable relationship with employee retention and customer satisfaction and a strong relationship with productivity and profit. Q9 has a positive relationship with customer satisfaction and a strong positive relationship with the employee retention, productivity, and profit.

One thing I observed in my software life was that people who identified with the purpose of the group were more open to understanding the tradeoffs that had to be made — e.g., between quality and time to market. I guess it helped them lift their eyes off of their own particular concerns. Those with more limited views only judged by their own work and were often very unhappy when things had to be shipped before they felt their own pieces were perfect.

Not sure if that helps. It’s what your comment brought to mind.


Harter, Schmidt, Keyes (2003). Well-being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: A review of the Gallup studies. In Keyes & Haidt, Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived, pp. 205-224. Washington, DC: APA.

Kathryn Britton 9 July 2008 - 9:23 am

Jeff, So maybe we should add the “albatross orientation” to our list?

Jeff Dustin 9 July 2008 - 12:26 pm

Albatross: Cacaa Cacaa!

Arjan Haring 12 July 2008 - 9:33 am

I think Meaning is a very important subject. If you think so too you could join me at the Thoughts on Happiness Symposium in Amsterdam in November 2008. This year the theme is The Meaning of Life.

Jo 13 July 2008 - 4:11 am

I am developing a strong interest in bringing about organizations where we can be free to have jobs, careers and callings separately or all-in-one!

I noticed a recent slideshare of mine on Positive Organization Design got a lot of hits quite fast. That particular pack is rather academic. I think people are ready for positive psychology at the organizational level.

How can we design and maintain organizations that not only accommodate but are strengthened by the variety and depth of our purpose?

Kathryn Britton 13 July 2008 - 1:16 pm


Great question. And then add to that: What are the practical steps that can move us in this direction? What can people inside the organizations do, and what ideas or materials do they need that we outside practitioners can provide? What can people do individually at various levels in an organizational hierarchy? What can they do in groups? What can be done at the entire organization level?

Why not include a link to your slideshare in your response.


Wayne Jencke 13 July 2008 - 5:17 pm

Kathryn and Jo,

Positive psych is not new. Its just adding the science (which is a good thing) to many training practices that have been around for years. For example working to strengths has been promoted by MBTI and Team Management Systems for years.

To a certain extent the risk of banality is the greatest challenge for PP.

I guess I’m luck as the Resilience Builder software (http://www.i-i.com.au/resilience/resilence_builder.html) that I use is new and interesting and validates the health benefits of many of the PP interventions.

Editor K.H.B. 13 July 2008 - 5:39 pm


I just re-encountered a very relevant statement by Albert Bandura:

“The problem we have in psychology is that we don’t profit from our successes. We construct theories and clarify how they produce their effects, but we lack implementation models for translating theory into effective practice.”


Wayne Jencke 14 July 2008 - 4:57 am

Kathryn, I agree – theory without application is pointless


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