Finding Meaning in Work: Is It Still Possible?
“Finding meaning in work” is a phrase that has become a sort of meme. We even find business magazines such as Inc. exhorting us to “Do work that gives your life meaning”. Yet, how do we actually do that, in today’s world?
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio
One thing is clear: finding meaning in work is often not as simple as it might initially seem. This is particularly true in the work world of 2023. Many business, educational and government organizations are understaffed, underfunded or facing extraordinary demand, creating situations of intense pressure or conflicting priorities on the individuals who are employed by them.
Also, in many professions with high ethics or ideals, there is the danger of what experts in the field refer to as moral injury. This is a term that originated in the military, but now is often used to describe situations in a health care or educational context. The Canadian Medical Association defines it as:
Psychological distress that results from events that go against one’s values and moral beliefs.
Many people who care deeply about their work, like nurses, physicians or educators can find themselves in work situations where they face demands and are forced to make decisions that fly in the face of values that they hold as precious. This can be actively traumatic, and can make finding meaning in work virtually impossible.
The Challenege of Work and Meaning
Given all these challenges, how do we bring together our need for work, and our need for meaning? How do we combine these two things, which seem to be so very different?
C.G. Jung always stressed that finding a sense of meaning in our lives was essential, not optional. As he stressed at one point:
As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.
And as he also said, in a quotation I frequently refer to,
The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.
Yet, it’s no less true for the vast majority of human beings, that we also need work, in the sense of an activity that we do that meets our economic needs, thus providing food, shelter and all the other necessities in our lives. It can be a very real aspect of life that what we have to do to meet our economic needs doesn’t feel all that intrinsically meaningful. It may even feel downright meaning-less! How do we deal with this tension?
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Does Finding Meaning in Work Really Matter?
It’s possible that someone might feel that this whole discussion is irrelevant to their lives. “Look,” they might say, “this meaning stuff is just way too woo-hoo for me. All I do is get up every day, go to work and pay the bills.”
That attitude might work well when a person is in the early stages of her or his working life, but it tends to become less sustainable as a person journeys into their middle years and beyond. For people at this stage in their lives, at the midlife transition and beyond, there has to be some source or meaning or value to their effort or contribution that exceeds the standard of merely just “keeping on keeping on”.
Our work is a very deep and fundamental expression of who we are, and what we really care about. People can sustain doing work that has little intrinsic value—but only if it in some way is supporting something in their lives that has a great and positive meaning or value.
This can be for other family members, spouse and children, some sense of helping others or society, or some higher value or perhaps some spiritual conviction. There has to be some lasting value or importance to where we put our energy.
Finding Meaning in Work Throughout LIfe
This may all lead to the important question of what is your life work or vocation. It may be that people can tolerate a less than ideal work life, one that is not particularly meaningful or that doesn’t hold great value, if they can find true meaning elsewhere in their lives.
If an individual has something that for them has great value beyond their day job, this may also meet their need for meaning. Such a commitment might include involvement with an organization that they esteem very highly outside of work. Or it might entail a commitment to a social or political cause, or a form of creative activity that holds great meaning, or possibly a “side hustle” or business that they do on the side that really absorbs their interest and energy. Such things might be ways of finding all important meaning outside of one’s day job.
This brings us to the question of what, really, truly is your work. It may be something quite different from what pays your bills.
The true work that really adds meaning to your life is probably powerfully connected to your vocation. It can be an extremely important part of your life journey to identify what that vocation, or call of the deepest part of your Self may be.
It can be of great help to find a supportive depth psychotherapist who can assist with these issues of finding meaning in work, finding our true work and understanding our true vocation.
I wish you every good thing as you travel on your personal journey, the road that is uniquely yours.
With very best wishes,
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and
Certified Jungian Analyst (IAAP)
Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional
© Brian Collinson, 2023