Series on Meaningfulness at Work – Being Happy

“I just want to be happy.” We have all said it at one time or another. The wish for happiness is one of our most widely held goals in life. But here’s the rub. Recent research suggests that happiness–as the be-all and end-all–isn’t the only ingredient to a life well-lived. As a result, some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness and advocating for the pursuit of its closest cousin: meaning.


At first blush, it may seem peculiar that there is a difference between feeling happy and finding life meaningful. In fact, they are positively correlated–but they don’t always go together. Findings from a recent study conducted by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina and her colleagues, examined self-reported levels of happiness and meaning, and the results were alarming: a whopping 75% of subject participants scored high on levels of happiness, but low on levels of meaning.

This divergence holds vast insight into where we invest and focus our energy, especially in the workplace. Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent–and underutilized–ways to increase productivity, engagement, and performance. Consider the latest survey findings from the Energy Project, an engagement and performance firm that focuses on workplace fulfilment, as well as the recent New York Times story on why many hate their jobs. The survey, which reached more than 12,000 employees across a broad range of companies and industries, found that 50% lack a level of meaning and significance at work.

Moreover, employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations – the highest single impact of any other survey variable they tested. By this account, meaning trumps items related to learning and growth, connection to a company’s mission, and even work-life balance. And the employees who have meaning don’t just stick around longer. They also report 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and are 1.4 times more engaged at work.

Meaning matters, but how exactly do we find more meaning at work? It’s important to first understand why what makes us happy may not always bring more meaning, and vice versa. To answer this question, a recent Stanford research project, asked nearly 400 Americans whether they thought their lives were either happy or meaningful or both. The dissonance, in part, was how the two groups approach social interactions. Happiness is associated with being a ‘taker’, focusing on what one gets from others. Meaningfulness, in contrast, comes from being a ‘giver’, suspending what one wants and desires for a fair amount of self-sacrifice.

In other words, to amp up the meaning in work, we must temper our taking tendencies and dial up our acts of giving. This is an appreciable shift, especially when the modus operandi in most workplaces is to continuously seek more time, resources, and attention from others. Meaning is premised on an entirely different way of interacting–that is, giving to others in service of the ‘greater good’. Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent–and underutilized–ways to increase productivity, engagement, and performance.

Source—Jessica Amortegui,