Finding Joy Or Meaning In Your Work

I’m often told that I can consider myself lucky that I enjoy the work I do for a living. While I admit that I take this for granted, I equally appreciate that for many, many people work is just that: work. A necessity of life that pays the bills and enables the activities, hobbies and dreams that actually bring you joy. One reason I’ve taken my situation for granted is that for most of my professional career I’ve been surrounded by highly competent engineers, scientists, project and people managers who I count as some of the best of the best in their respective fields. To become one of the best, you usually have to enjoy your work. It’s very hard to force yourself into excellence. That said, it is possible to excel at your profession without enjoying it, as long as you have a strong enough meaning or purpose to the work that you do – a why that overpowers the what.

Generalizing this notion a little, I’ve entertained the thought for a while now that in order to find happiness in what you do and improve at it, you either need to find joy in your work, or find meaning in your work. You can have both and you can have neither, each with its own outcome. Below is a little matrix illustrating roughly what I believe each combination of joy and meaning leads to.

Learning Curves

Without a doubt enjoying the activity that fills the majority of your day and the majority of your week – what constitutes “work” for many of us – is the most powerful catalyst for personal happiness and professional improvement. Given that we spend so much of our adult life “at work”, it goes without saying that if your work is something you truly enjoy, something you would be doing even if nobody asked you to or paid you money for, something you would do on your off days and weekends – you would be pretty happy. Find me a person who says no to that and I’ll show you a masochist. In addition to this, when a person who enjoys her work is also ambitious, competitive and driven, this naturally fosters an interest in self-improvement. If you love what you do and take pride in your skill and becoming continuously better at it, the urge to improve, learn and refine comes naturally.

That said, enjoying your work without having a meaning or purpose, an end to your work – can also be a form of hedonism. I really enjoy eating food and becoming a professional food eater would likely bring me quite a lot of joy. I might even strive to become the best food eater there is. However, I’d be hard pressed to explain what purpose I’m aiming to achieve with my profession and my relentless ambition beyond satisfying my gluttony. Simply put, if you already love what you do, why not apply it to something useful to society, your community, your family or even yourself – enabling some higher, more meaningful goal you seek after.

Let’s consider the other axis: meaning. There are individuals who don’t particularly enjoy – even dislike – their day-to-day work, but find some meaning in their occupation that drives them. That drive will not breed the same happiness as obtained by the person who actually enjoys their work, but the deep rooted purpose they’re pursuing can very well foster the same determination to continuously improve and strive for excellence. Consider a medical researcher who aspires to find a cure for cancer. They may not enjoy the ardor of lab work day in and day out. They may have things they’d rather be doing on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Yet their passion to accomplish their goal pushes them to constantly improve, to read dozens of papers every week, to learn the latest methods, improve on them and surpass the boundaries of their medical knowledge. Having meaning to one’s work can be a fertilizer for improvement, even if it is not a fertilizer for happiness.

I think a lot more people find meaning in their work than joy. Anybody who regards their work as a way of “bringing home the bacon” to support their family, their hobbies or other aspirations, has a purpose to their work. Anybody who ever put in extra hours to rake in a promotion to get a higher salary has gotten a taste of the effects of having meaning to one’s labor. However, at least for me, “making more dough” is a pretty weak purpose. The higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs my purpose is, the harder I’ll strive to make ever faster progress towards that goal.

Discontent arises when you neither enjoy your work, nor find it meaningful. At the macro scale I have fortunately never experienced this, but at the micro scale I have. Most likely all of us have had to do some annoying task for no apparently good reason and hated every minute of it. It not only breeds unhappiness, it also doesn’t motivate us to improve ourselves at our work, unless it means that we can get it over with sooner – which only goes so far and is only so sustainable. Realistically, if you find that your work is a torture, if you can find neither joy, nor any meaning to it, you need a change. Your prospects are either personal misery, professional stagnation or, most likely, both. Life is a short ride, way too short to spend it like that.

That brings us to the final of our four cases, lined in gold and sparkling with diamonds: the top right quadrant, when your work brings you both joy and meaning. I can’t claim that it’s like this for me every day, but from personal experience there is little more electrifying than working on something that you generally like to do, that is fun to you in its own right, but also gives you the feeling of edging you closer towards some higher purpose. It’s the kind of stuff that makes sleep your enemy, because it takes away precious time that you could be spending on what you love to do and feel like you need to do. It’s what spawns an insatiable appetite for personal growth, for reading every article and every book and talking to every person out there that could help you grow. It’s what separates the truly great from the very good, and the truly happy from the very content.

I’ve found that joy and meaning are two very salient parameters by which to characterize one’s work and I’ve seen plenty of folks in all four spots. It helps to periodically check in with yourself where you currently see yourself and take appropriate action. If you find both joy and meaning in your current day to day occupation, good for you and keep it up, strive further and further into that top right corner, off the charts. If your work brings you joy, but you cannot honestly discern a meaningful purpose to it, you may have become too complacent and it’s time to apply what you love to a higher goal. If you think your work has purpose but you do not enjoy it, consider whether you can change the latter. Life is better with a smile. If not, hats off to you, you must be a disciplined person and your purpose must be honorable. But if none apply, if Monday morning is the worst part of your week and you feel like the world would really not be a whole lot different, maybe even better off, if you didn’t continue what you’re doing for another 40 years, it’s time for a change. We all have potential and we all deserve a fair shot at happiness.