5 Reasons Why Meaning Matters More Than Happiness At Work

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I believe that the western world is suffering from a meaning deficit and this is never more evident than in the world of work.

Dramatic change and uncertainty are incredibly stressful for us, and many people that I have coached this year have been experiencing harmful stress levels.

According to the Australian Psychological Society report Stress and Wellbeing in Australia 2013 severe distress has increased 42% over the last 2 years, whilst severe and extremely severe depression has increased 34% over the same period.

The APS study showed that working Australians reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction, and significantly lower levels of interest in their jobs, than in the previous 2 years.

Employees are increasingly concerned about the uncertainty and casualization of work. The constant change from trying to do “more with less” is taking its toll when there is no direct link to work purpose. Only 27% of highly stressed employees in an RUOK?atWork Survey agreed with ‘my organisational purpose energises me’ compared to 66% of employees with low levels of stress.

Why does meaning matters more than happiness at work?

Meaning vs. Happiness

Probably one of the most influential books I have read, is Viktor Frankls Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl was a Jewish Psychiatrist, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and during that time lost his wife, mother, father, and brother. In that most horrific of environments, he observed that the 1 in 28 that survived was able to tap into meaning to get through unimaginable hardship.

More recently, in a Roy Baumeister article called Meanings of Life he discusses his research that examines the differences between meaning and happiness. The research posed questions about the extent to which people thought their lives were happy and the extent to which they thought they were meaningful. They did not supply a definition of happiness or meaning, so their subjects responded using their own understanding of those words. By asking a large number of other questions, they were able to see which factors went with happiness and which went with meaningfulness.

In Common

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of overlap between the two factors. Almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. Nevertheless, using statistical controls they were able to tease two apart, isolating the ‘pure’ effects of each one that were not based on the other. Using this method, they found five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness.

These were the 5 main differences as they pertain to work
  1. Thriving through struggles, problems, stresses

    This factor probably more than any other, creates a compelling case for why meaning is more important that happiness at work. The researchers asked how many positive and negative events people had recently experienced. Having lots of good things happen turned out to be helpful for both meaning and happiness. No surprise there. But bad things were a different story.Highly meaningful lives encounter plenty of negative events, which of course reduce happiness. Indeed, stress and negative life events were two powerful blows to happiness, despite their significant positive association with a meaningful life. We begin to get a sense of what the happy but not very meaningful life would be like. Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles — all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life. In light of the constant change, uncertainty, and setbacks which are part of everyday work there can be no more compelling case for focussing on meaning rather than happiness at work.

  2. Getting what you want versus need 

    Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. But it had nothing — maybe even less than nothing ­— to add to a sense of meaning. In the workplace, if we tie our esteem to title, our benefits, our job, our prospects, this can change overnight. By focusing on the meaning or purpose of our work, we are less susceptible to vagaries of office relationships and the dynamics of decision making. 

  3. Linking past present and future 

    Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present, whereas meaning links past, present, and future. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness. Work should be about a compelling future.  If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story. By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning.

  4. Contribution to others

    Being alone in the world is linked to low levels of happiness and meaningfulness, as is feeling lonely. Simply put, meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you. This runs counter to some conventional wisdom: it is widely assumed that helping other people makes you happy. Well, to the extent that it does, the effect depends entirely on the overlap between meaning and happiness. Helping others had a big positive contribution to meaningfulness independent of happiness, but there was no sign that it boosted happiness independently of meaning.  In Jim Collins classic book Good to Great he identified a style of leadership he called Level 5, which was linked to extraordinarily successful organisations. Stage 5 leaders are driven by the purpose of the organisation and the growth and development of their people (how they contributed to them) – some also term this Servant Leadership.

  5. Personal identity
    The final category of differences had to do with the self and personal identity. Activities that express the self are an important source of meaning but are mostly irrelevant to happiness. Of the 37 items on our list that asked people to rate whether some activity (such as working, exercising or meditating) was an expression or reflection of the self, 25 yielded significant positive correlations with a meaningful life and none was negative. Only two of the 37 items (socialising, and partying without alcohol) were positively linked to happiness, and some even had a significant negative relationship. The worst was worry: if you think of yourself as a worrier, that seems to be quite a downer. Our work is incredibly important to our self-esteem. In a survey I did for my book BACK FROM THE BRINK I asked over 4000 people who had major setbacks what worked best for them in regaining their outlook – fulfilling work was rated number 6 out of 60 strategies. We should choose work that is meaningful for us.
Why not take the Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI)?

Michael F. Steger is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, who has developed a Work and Meaning Inventory.

To find out more about it, and to complete the free assessment, follow this link >

February 27 Sydney workshop to help you and your tribe to have greater meaning

In times of unprecedented change and uncertainty, the only thing we can control, is what we choose to do each day – and that directly impacts our mood and performance. As people leaders we are the Chief Energy Officer (CEO) for ourselves and our tribe.

This workshop will provide the building blocks to help you and your tribe outperform, outlast, and outmanoeuvre.

“Graeme delivered one of the most compelling presentations I have seen. He and his messages are relevant for any workplace experiencing change, and have had a lasting impact on my group. Highly recommended.”

-David Banks, General Manager Business Performance, National Australia Bank


Click Here To Download Workshop Brochure >

Graeme Cowan is an author and speaker who helps people build resilience and mental fitness, to thrive through change. www.GraemeCowan.com.au

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