Is It Possible For Work to Make You Happy and be Meaningful, Too?

This morning I read a blog post by Penelope Trunk that seems to argue we cannot be happy in our work and have that work be meaningful, too.

She arrives at this position through telling a story about going apple picking with her sons on their farm, but ending up rescuing a stranded, scared calf. She comments:

You’d think that picking apples was the fun part of the day, interrupted by a farm emergency. But in fact, the best part of the day was saving the calf. We look for moments of happiness, but there is not much lasting happiness from a few bucolic moments in a field of apple trees.

What lasts is having meaning. The kids felt important bringing the calf to safety. When someone needed to stay by the calf while we went to get milk replacer, one of the boys stayed.”

Meaningful work doesn’t mean unhappy work

She concludes:

Your real job, not necessarily the one you get paid for, is to find the opportunity to infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.”

I think Penelope may be looking at this backwards. Why can’t engaging in meaningful work – work that, yes, may challenge us and move us out of our comfort zone – also make us happy?

I do not see these as mutually exclusive. Indeed, there is extensive research that shows engaging in meaningful work is what motivates us and makes us happier in our work.

Happiness without meaning is shallow

Penelope cites one researcher as below:

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Roy Baumeister writes about happiness as something that gets in the way of a meaningful life. Happiness is about decreasing stress and conflict and taking rather than giving. In a forthcoming paper about the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life, the authors write, ‘Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.’”

The error lies in putting the “happiness” cart before the “meaningful” horse.

We can engage in meaningful work that gives us great happiness. Because we feel “happy” in our work does not – must not – denigrate the importance and value of the work we do. I would say Mr. Baumeister supports this when he says “happiness without meaning…”

Do you find your work meaningful? Does it cause you to be happy in the work you do?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.

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