A psychologist explains: how do you find (more) meaning in your work?

13 Jun ‘23
5 min
Finding purpose
Lisanne van Marrewijk
Reviewed by psychologist Jasmijn Eerenberg
illustratie van twee mensen die betekenis zoeken
As a society, our needs and wants continue to evolve. In the past, having a decent salary and nice colleagues may have been enough. But today, many people also want to find meaning at work; a factor that largely determines job satisfaction and workplace happiness. Meaning propels us forward and helps us engage more effectively in our work.


In this article, psychologist Paul Hessels explains how to find (more) meaning in your work.


What is the definition of meaning?


Meaningfulness is a broad term defined by Van Dale as ‘the search for meaning, the purpose of life’. And that purpose or calling gives you energy and inspiration, says consultant Naina Dhingra, who researched meaning for McKinsey. 


“It is an overarching sense of meaning, of direction and intention in one’s life. A dot on the horizon,” Dhingra aptly describes. 


What that meaning or vocation is, differs for everyone. Meaningfulness is very personal; what is close to one person’s heart is less significant for another and vice versa.


“Your values, which give your life meaning, determine the difference between living and being lived,” explains psychologist Paul Hessels. “Understanding what your values are and actively living by them, gives direction and a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfilment.”


The meaning of meaning


As psychologist Jasmijn Eerenberg explained to us, there comes a point in our lives when we wonder about the usefulness of the things we do. A moment when we are looking for more meaning that connects us to a bigger picture. 


This sentiment is hard to express, but we all know how it feels. You want that feeling that you are contributing to something; a feeling that sets you in motion. Something that wakes you up in the morning, and helps you sleep at night with a content feeling.


The pandemic has accelerated and reinforced this quest for many people. McKinsey research shows that two-thirds of workers in the US have started thinking about their purpose in life because of the pandemic. Almost half say they are reconsidering the work they do.


This is logical, as creating meaning in your work makes you more connected to what you do. According to McKinsey, this affects your productivity but also makes you more resilient and even healthier. The same study shows that 70 per cent of employees’ purpose is defined by their work.


Feeling purpose is logical too, because having a purpose at work not only makes us more productive, but also more resilient, more connected to our work and even healthier (McKinsey).


Meaning vs. goals


Values are somewhat different from your goals – a difference that is essential to highlight. Values provide a sense of purpose and fulfilment, regardless of whether you achieve your goals. A life that revolves around goals alone, not aligned with your values, does not give that same satisfaction.


This creates confusion for many people, as accurately explained by Paul: “Many people do have goals, but they have chosen them out of social expectations. Think status, more money or a fitter body. Those goals are there not because people want them themselves, but because they think they want them or are expected to.”


This does not mean that goals are useless, quite the contrary. They are necessary to motivate yourself. But choose those goals in line with your values. In the video below, therapist Russ Harris explains the difference between goals and values.



Creating meaning at work


Knowing what your values are is essential to creating meaning at work. In fact, research from Harvard Business Review (2018) shows 9 in 10 employees would trade a percentage of their income for more meaningful work.


A goal that is aligned with your values provides intrinsic motivation and energy. But knowing what you get out of bed for is a process. A lifelong process perhaps, as expressed by psychologist Jasmijn: “Knowing what you care about is not always something you can define in one conversation with a psychologist or during a morning of deep reflection. It is a lifelong search.”


How do you begin the search for more meaning?


The best way to find more meaning in your work and in your life is with a values investigation, Paul reveals. You can do this in several ways. Paul shares three options he often uses in his sessions:


1. Explore your values with questions


Ask yourself what motivates you, what you find important, and what energises you. The questions below can help you achieve this: 


  • What were moments or periods of your life when you felt inspired? Why? 
  • What films, books, conversations or stories moved you and why?  
  • Who do you admire? Why do you admire this person, what is it they stand for? 
  • What makes you angry? Why is that?
  • What inspires you?
  • What did you enjoy doing as a child? 
  • If you didn’t have to work to make a living, what would you do with your life? 
  • When do you experience flow and spontaneously forget about time? 
  • When you are 80 years old, how would you like to look back on your life?


2. Go on a speed date with your values


Find a list of values on the internet and randomly pick three. Then cross out your least favourite value. Choose one new one, (now you have three again) and cross one out again. Choose another new one, and continue like this until you are left with three final values.


When you do this activity, you can prioritise between various values, narrowing down the most significant ones to you. 


Note: Your final remaining values are not your values forever. This is because your values can change over time, so a values survey will also remain relevant throughout your life.


💡 After the survey, reflect: how did I know whether a value fits my life or not? Was it rational? Or was it intuitive? Which values made me hesitate and why? Why did you choose one and not the other?


3. Visualise being 80 years old


Close your eyes and imagine that you are 80 years old. You are sitting on a chair in the garden on a summer day, enjoying the beautiful weather and the warmth of the sun. Your mind wanders and you begin to look back on your life. 


Now bring the three values from the previous exercise to your attention. Let’s walk through life using these values as a lens. Notice how the values connect to your life. Did you live according to these three values?


What did that look like? Look back at your childhood, and your upbringing. Were you happy? What made you happy? Was it a life driven by values or goals? What choices did you make? What drove those choices? What steps did you take in your career or studies? Why?



And then?


Now that you know what your values are, you can use them as a compass in your life. Ask yourself what you can change to live a life more aligned with your values to find more meaning in what you do. 


But how can you bring these values to the core of your work? “Suppose one of your values is ‘adventure’. You may not immediately think of your work when you hear the word adventure, but that doesn’t have to mean quitting your job and travelling the world,” Paul explains. “You can, but you don’t have to.” What you can do:


⭐️ Find out how to bring your value into your life outside of work. Go on a weekend adventure. Go to the theatre one night with no idea where you are going, get on your bike with no goal and see where it takes you. There are countless ways to live an adventurous life without switching jobs.


⭐️ Find out how to incorporate your value into your work. Let your manager know that you would like to try something new. Sign up for a project you find exciting; say yes to something outside your comfort zone.


It can help to print your values and hang them somewhere you see them every day. This keeps you focused on what matters to you, which helps you make choices, – big and small, in your work and in your life. The more often you make decisions based on your values, the easier it will become. 


💡 Realise that you can’t and don’t have to change everything overnight. Start by taking small steps that move you towards your values. It is precisely those small steps that will eventually bring about a significant change in your life.

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