3 Lessons on Work to Create Meaning in Your Life

Sure, pretty much everyone wants a career. It makes it a lot easier to plan your weekends that way. But having a career, or even a job, doesn’t mean that you are going to create meaning in your life. Indeed, if you hate what you do, your life is going to feel meaningless, and your likelihood of happiness takes a big tumble down the odds maker’s charts.

So how do you create meaning in your life? Ultimately, by having a vocation, a reason for doing what you do. Whether you’re a ditch digger or a high-powered executive, choosing work that feels fulfilling brings a much greater sense of happiness.

Three lessons on work can help you determine whether your day-to-day work is fulfilling to you, and hopefully help you decide whether you are living with meaning or need to pursue your happiness through work in another way.

Lesson #1: Focus on serving others

The greatest engine of misery in our society is a sense of social and economic superfluousness. Feeling like you’re needed is integral to feeling successful.  The sense of insecurity many in America feel today is contributing to the anger on display in U.S. politics.

Have a miserable colleague at work? Odds are the problem isn’t just skill mismatch or lack of drive. Most likely, they don’t feel really necessary. Don’t believe it? Reflect on your own experience. Remember that time you weren’t being used enough on the project at work? Didn’t feel good, did it?

We’re designed to serve others, we are wired to want to feel useful, and a sense of superfluousness is a social and psychological cancer.

At the same time, most public policy ideas aimed at helping the job market fail to unleash that sense of utility — and the commensurate human flourishing that goes with it — because the policies are created through a managerial mindset, treating lower income earners as data points to be managed and raised.

To promote human happiness, public policy and our politics must treat every human as a precious asset. Our organizing principle must be that everyone needs to be needed. And even if we don’t realize it, almost anyone with a job is needed and relied on. There are people counting on each of us. We should view every day as an opportunity to serve them.

Lesson #2: Ask why you do what you do

When people first meet, they often ask, “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.

Saint Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologica why people are happy or unhappy? He poses the question of whether happiness is found in such things as wealth, honor, fame, glory, power, the physical body, pleasure, the soul, or objects.

“Naught can lull man’s will save the universal good,” Aquinas contends.

What does that mean? The upshot is that miserable people chase money, power, pleasure, and fame. That’s no surprise, it’s a natural thing to do. It’s much easier to pass on your genetic material if you accumulate these things. But pushing you to pass on your genetic material is not coincident with you leading a happy life. The key to happiness isn’t being a ripe specimen in the eyes of Darwin. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy.

Understanding the real moral purpose that lies behind your choices and keeping it square in your sights is a much more viable route to happiness. The diagnostic tool is to ask yourself: Why am I doing this thing? We all want money. But is it primarily for money? Is it primarily for power? Is it primarily for fame? Or is it because I feel a sense of purpose?

Lesson #3: Don’t invest everything in work

The social science comes down pretty clear on this one. Four inputs of happiness are in our control: faith, family, community, and work. Many people might think they have all four covered. Indeed, they might. The key question is this: When was the last time you checked your life portfolio for balance among those four inputs? It’s easy to find ourselves drifting, especially at different phases of the life cycle. But this is a big trap. Just like it takes diversification to weather economic shifts, so too can big life events upend an unbalanced happiness portfolio. Investing all your time and thoughts into work is like going long on Greek bonds. No one wants to be that guy.

— modified from the work of Arthur C. Brooks