Find meaning in work

Can all kinds of occupations be rewarding? How does our approach to what we do matter?

October 29, 2016 05:00 pm | Updated December 02, 2016 12:17 pm IST

Just as school kids have Monday morning blues, many adults also reluctantly trudge to work at the start of each week. Work, for many people, is something that has to be done mainly to put bread on the table. But given a choice, most people would opt to do something else. We often believe that a different occupation would give us more satisfaction. But economic necessities compel us to stick with a job we don’t quite enjoy. We also believe that mundane and low status positions can’t provide us with fulfilment. However, research suggests that all kinds of occupations can be intrinsically rewarding. What matters is our approach to the work we do.

In a paper published in Journal of Personality Research , psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues describe people’s relationship to their work using three categories. People who view their work as a job focus primarily on the material benefits that their employment brings. The job is seen as a means of earning income, but nothing more. If the person had sufficient wealth, he would not consider this line of work, which is seen as a chore. In contrast, those who see their work as a career, look beyond their salaries and are interested in climbing the hierarchies within their organisation. They derive satisfaction and experience higher self-esteem as they make advances in the occupational structure. Promotions are seen as stepping stones to success, and people are motivated to ascend the ranks. The third group involves those with a calling. For this group, their work is an integral part of themselves. The primary motivator is not financial gains or career growth, but the fulfilment that the work itself brings. People feel their work is benefiting the world and are driven by a purpose larger than themselves.

Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found that this tripartite distinction of Job-Career-Calling applies to professions across the board. Even though we may believe that nurturing professions such as teaching or nursing may lend themselves more readily as callings, people can find intrinsic satisfaction in all forms of employment. Thus, secretaries, sales people and factory workers can view their work as a calling if they love what they do and feel that they are making a positive difference to the world.

In a study that involved 135 employees, Wrzesniewski and her team found an almost equal split between the three groups: 44, 43 and 48 people viewed their work primarily as a job, career or calling respectively. Further, when they looked at specific occupations, they found that administrative assistants were the largest group in their sample. Interestingly, within this group, 9, 7 and 8 people viewed their work as a job, career or calling. The fact that the same job elicits different perceptions in different people suggests that the inherent demands of a job may have less of an impact than our perception of it.

This point is poignantly illustrated by an anecdote that psychologists C.R. Snyder and Shane Lopez recount in their book, Positive Psychology . When Snyder was hospitalised at the University of Kansas Medical Centre for a major surgery, he remembers an orderly who worked from midnight to 8 am everyday. It was during this time that Snyder was most uncomfortable as the effect of his pain medication usually wore off by then. While talking to the orderly, who used to fluff his pillow, he learned that she was an immigrant from Iran. Moreover, she said she loved her job, which was to ensure that patients recovering from surgeries were comfortable during the wee hours of the morning. When Snyder was in agonising pain, she would try to soothe his nerves by telling him that his family would be at his side in the morning. She also went the extra mile and brought a bunch of fresh flowers which she would place in a vase by her patients’ bedside. Snyder learnt that she picked them up from a local grocery store that used to otherwise throw away the unsold cut flowers. For Snyder, the beauty of the flowers was enhanced by the orderly’s devotion to her job. Thus, we see an example of how a relatively low-paying job can be transformed into a calling by a person who sees inherent worth in what she does.

Psychiatrist and blogger Dr. Samantha Boardman gives another example in The Huffington Post that captures the effect of the difference in perception between the three groups. When asked to describe what he is doing, a labourer may say that he is either laying bricks, building a wall or a cathedral. While the day-to-day labour is the same in each case, the worker’s views impacts how he feels about his work.

Thus, before deciding whether we really dislike our job, perhaps we should introspect and reflect on our attitudes and assumptions regarding our employment. Can we find meaning in what we do? Remember that even the most mundane jobs serve a purpose. It is up to us to find it.


Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.