Beyond salary: Finding meaning in work

Key Points

  • Many people find fulfillment at work when they’re learning something new, have a sense of contribution and are helping others.
  • Finding meaning in your work may be within your control: Approach your current position as your own business to help create a sense of ownership.
  • Seek out opportunities to make small changes to better understand what makes you happy.

With careers taking up so much of our waking hours, it’s natural to want to spend our days doing meaningful work. Yet employee engagement for American workers averaged just under 33% during the first half of 20161.

How can you find a sense of purpose if you’re part of the remaining 67%? To find out, we talked with Dan Ariely, best-selling author and Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

Beyond salary image

Q: What makes people feel their life and work have meaning?

A: Most people expect bigger homes and bigger cars will make them happy. In reality, it’s experiences rather than material objects that bring us the greatest joy. People are most fulfilled when they feel like they are learning something new, making an impact and helping others. These activities can create a level of happiness beyond what people expect.

Q:What is the alternative to a two weeks’ notice if I don’t have a fulfilling job?

A: It all starts with autonomy and being heard. Having more control makes us happier because we’re steering our own destiny. Look at your current job and think about how you can make it into something that feels like your business. How can you create a feeling of ownership and control at work?

Q: What should I do if I am considering making a job or career change?

A: Since we are not always good at predicting what makes us happy, the best way is to take an experimental approach to life. Don’t change everything at once, but try out an idea in small ways. Instead of going on vacation, see if you can do some consulting for a week within an industry that interests you. Or work on a related side project at your current employer. Instead of jumping ship, feel it out first.

Q: What about starting my own business?

A: Having your own business can mean more responsibility and legal obligations. But if you can’t find meaning in your current job using the strategies previously mentioned, then you might want to carefully consider starting your own business. People often find meaning in entrepreneurship because it gives them control and they can take the business in a direction that fits their interests.

"Having more control makes us happier because we’re steering our own destiny."
Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University