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  • Writer's pictureLindi Engelbrecht

How to Cultivate the habit of meaningfulness, because emotions matter a lot at work.

Being Happy at Work Matters

Highly successful people often attribute their success to specific habits. Some actions, when practiced daily, can help you maintain focus and complete your workplace tasks well. Consider cultivating workplace habits that help you become a valuable employee, impress your supervisors and advance at your company.

One of my mom’s favorite stories to tell us as children was the tale of the traveler and the three bricklayers. In the story, the traveler meets the bricklayers, who are hard at work, and asks them what they’re doing.

The first man responds, “I’m laying bricks.”

The second man responds, “I’m building a church.”

The third man responds, enthusiastically, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Despite each of the bricklayers having the exact same job, their subjective experience varied significantly. There’s a great takeaway from this parable. When we can see how what we’re doing fits into the whole—when we’re aware that each metaphorical “brick” we’re laying is contributing to something greater—we feel happiness and fulfillment.

And just like that enthusiastic bricklayer, we too can actively seek to find meaning in our work. The “why” behind what we’re doing isn’t always obvious or inherent, but it’s there, trust me.

There is no doubt that actively finding purpose in our work every day is the single best thing we can do for our careers. But knowing this and actually applying it are two different things. That’s why we need to learn to exercise a little something I like to call the “meaningfulness habit.”

Happiness and meaning aren’t the same

There’s a clear difference between feeling happiness and feeling meaningfulness in your life. And the difference is important, because they each produce different results long-term.

So what is the difference?

A happy life is about seeking pleasure and enjoyment, avoiding discomfort, and doing what’s best for you as often as possible, whereas a meaningful life is about connecting with and helping others, and contributing to something beyond yourself—such as family, nature, or your work.

Because meaningful lives are characterized by contributing and connection, rather than pure enjoyment, they often include more stress, effort, and struggle than happy lives. But research shows meaningful lives tend to produce more positive feelings long-term than happiness alone, so the effort may be worth it.

Feelings of meaningfulness and a sense of purpose can even lead to more wealth. But to create a sense of meaningfulness at work we first have to understand what makes work meaningful.

How to Embrace the Meaningfulness Habit at Work

It works like this: Any time you’re starting a new task, take a moment to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What meaning can I give to this task?”

For many of us, reporting to an office and working for eight or nine hour stretches without coming up for much air can feel soul-sucking. It doesn’t matter how big your paycheck is (in fact, if you’re in it for the attractive salary alone and could care less about any other part of the job, it’s unlikely that you attribute a lot of “meaning” to your work), and it doesn’t matter what your title is (a label that has no connection to meaning).

What matters is your why—but this can include multiple drives. You don’t need to set your sights on one thing; in fact, if you try to do that, you’ll probably drive yourself crazy. Figuring out what you care about, will give you direction and that feeling of purpose we all crave. You need to understand “why you wake up in the morning and what you want to do for the world.” How will you make an impact? How can you put your talents and gifts to use? It’s not simply about doing what you love (an overused mantra if there ever was one). And it’s not actually even about landing on a single thing (daunting!).

Even if we’re not tangibly building something—like the bricklayers—there can still be meaning behind it. It may be a stepping stone to something greater; it may be an opportunity to be an example to others; it may be a creative outlet; it may be a way to support our retirement. No reason is a bad one.

Finding your breakthrough moment—that moment of opportunity and possibility when you discover why you're doing what you're doing and what you want to give to the world—isn’t about starting your own company. It’s not about taking a year off to travel the world. It’s not about changing jobs or industries on a whim. It’s identifying and then embracing your purpose. It’s an ongoing practice, “a never-ending balancing act,”. It is, the act of beginning to commit to something you care deeply about, something that provides personal meaning to you and allows you to share your gifts.

The Research Boils It Down to 3 Things

In Annie McKee's popular HBR piece, "Being Happy at Work Matters," her research team concluded that to be fully engaged and happy, virtually everyone wants three things:

  1. A meaningful vision of the future.

  2. A sense of purpose.

  3. Great relationships.

She makes the most compelling case yet that happiness -- and the full engagement that comes with it -- is more important than ever in today's workplace.

McKee drills home the point when she states, "Added up, brain science and our organizational research are in fact debunking the old myths: emotions matter a lot at work. Happiness is important. To be fully engaged, people need vision, meaning, purpose, and resonant relationships."


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