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What people get wrong when chasing meaningful work

As a professor, I'm fortunate to teach a course called World Religions for Healthcare Professionals that prepares students for the spiritual and ethical issues they may encounter in their careers. But the class often boils down to life's big questions: What makes life worth living, and how should we live? How do you find your “calling?”

In particular, one thought-provoking paradox captures students' attention. They live in a society where the idea of a professional “calling” is frequently talked about as a quest for personal fulfillment and achievement or satisfaction with one's work. The problem is that the more you aim for success, “the more you are going to miss it,” as psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his influential book “Man's Search for Meaning.”

In Frankl's view, success and happiness come only from dedicating oneself to a greater cause, or to another person. But his perspective — echoed by my students — contrasts with the prevailing way many Americans talk about a “calling” today. As a professor of religious studies, I study how society portrays callings and meaningful work and how that has shifted over the past few decades.

Redeeming work

Understanding work as a calling traces back to the German theologian Martin Luther, who famously ushered in the Protestant Reformation. Luther challenged the prevailing notion that nonreligious or nonpolitical work was drudgery and a punishment from the gods — a view that came from Greco-Roman times. The story of Pandora's box, for example, tells of a woman cursed by the gods who accidentally unleashes all forms of evil, including the toils of labor, on humanity.

Luther saw this bias against most forms of work as a reflection of a glaringly unequal society. Every task — even dirty work — held sacred significance, Luther believed. After all, he maintained, God was not above laboring in the dirt to create the universe and human beings in his likeness. God created work not as a punishment but instead as an invitation to participate in his creation.

Therefore, in the same way that one might be called to religious or political life, Luther believed one might be called to glorify God, grow as an individual and benefit others through the work of their hands.

Jobs, careers and callings

Religious understandings of being “called” to a vocation have continued ever since, often recast in secular terms. A particularly influential book about modern ideas of work is “Habits of the Heart,” written by Robert Bellah and other sociologists in 1985.

These authors described three different orientations toward work: work as a job, work as a career and work as a calling. The “job” orientation is focused on financial or material gains, while someone who thinks of their work as a “career” aims for social advancement. Someone who senses a “calling,” meanwhile, is inspired to produce excellent products or services while growing as an individual and contributing to the common good. In this view, meaningful work ensues through commitments to other people and causes.

However, the authors argued that American society was emphasizing individualism more and more, making this conception of calling “harder and harder to understand.” For many Americans, it was “difficult to see work as a contribution to the whole and easier to view it as a segmental, self-interested activity.”

The search for significance

Today, employee engagement numbers are startlingly low. Recent research from Gallup indicates that only 1 in 4 employees around the globe feel engaged at work, and workers' stress is at a record high.

Perhaps that's why many fields, like management and psychology, are highlighting the existential need to find meaning at work. Because participation in religious congregations, clubs and other civic organizations that once provided meaningful connection have been in decline in recent decades, work has now become the dominant way that many Americans participate in public life and hope to feel significant. Approaching work as a calling will leave you happier and more satisfied, columnists advise.

In recent decades, researchers studying the notion of callings have focused on work that helps people learn about themselves and experience fulfillment, especially in terms of ego needs like individual success and achievement. Today, the archetype for meaningful work seems to center on how it makes the employee feel.

Rethinking success

What I and some other scholars have argued, however, is that finding meaning at work is more contingent on what motivates you than on the feeling of personal fulfillment.

For example, in a 2011 analysis of 407 undergraduates, those “whose sense of calling seems to be primarily driven in … self-centered” ways were found to be much more susceptible to “negative views about themselves.” Those who focused on the “intrinsic” or “prosocial” purpose of work possessed lower rates of insecurity and higher overall rates of personal satisfaction.

More recently, an analysis of 135 workers from 10 occupations revealed that “individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when [they realized how] it mattered to others more than just to themselves.” In one case, “an academic described how she found her work meaningful when she saw her students graduate at the commencement ceremony, a tangible sign of how her own hard work had helped others succeed.”

As it turns out, the way that people think about the meaning of work matters. Pursuing meaning in terms of individual success and achievement makes the goal post of happiness become elusive. Just ask Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight in the hit NBC comedy series, “The Office.”

“When I was in 'The Office,' I spent several years really mostly unhappy because it wasn't enough. 'Why am I not a movie star?' 'Why am I not the next Jack Black or the next Will Ferrell?'” he told Bill Maher in a podcast interview.

However, his latest project, “The Geography of Bliss,” left Wilson believing that happiness finds us “when we turn from being self-centered to other-centered, when we're of service to others.” Meaning finds us, in other words, when we're not so focused on looking for it.

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