Meditation teacher and the best-selling author of Real Happiness shares ways to find fulfillment at work—even in jobs we may never love.
In preparation for writing my most recent book, Real Happiness at Work, I interviewed a lot of people, many of whom work dramatically different jobs—from a Wall Street executive to a carpet cleaner to a public-school teacher to an undercover policewoman, and more. My goal in writing about happiness at work was not to assume or argue that we all can find work we love or a job that is particularly fulfilling. Rather, I wanted to identify the ways in which we can find peace and meaning, or a sense of purpose, in our day-to-day professional lives, even in a position we don’t necessarily think of as our dream job. Why the search for meaning? It’s considered the strongest factor in one’s happiness at work, ranking even higher than position or status, according to survey findings from The Energy Project, a consulting firm that focuses on workplace fulfillment. And lest you think your own happiness is a selfish thing, it’s not—it becomes an inner resource out of which you can care for others.
Yet many of us feel like Tracy, who works as a secretary and told me how she struggles with separating her identity from her job: “It’s a huge challenge to not see myself as just a secretary,” she explained. “I do my best to be of service at a job that was never a great fit, but it’s wearing me down.”
Like Tracy, we struggle at work to find meaning and figure out who we are in relation to our jobs, as they are often the cause of disappointment, stress, competitiveness, and sometimes even downright despair. And while we cannot change those times when we are condescended to by our boss, disappointed by a failure, or overwhelmed by an astronomical workload, we can change how we relate to these experiences by cultivating certain skills that allow us to find meaning in the process. Meditation, I believe, is one of the most essential tools to help us do this.
Two Key Qualities for Finding Meaning In Work
Meditation helps us cultivate foundational skills like awareness, connection, and resilience. It’s certainly possible to find meaning at work without formal, seated meditation, but I’ve seen that for many, a regular meditation practice makes it easier. The two qualities most closely aligned with meditation that bring meaning into one’s work are mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness, which is refining our attention so we can connect more directly with each moment, allows us to feel more aware of and open to what actually is, as opposed to our judgments, assumptions, and preconceptions. In this way, mindfulness often translates to a sense of excellence—when you are fully present in what you’re doing, you can do it well and find meaning in that process. The second concept, compassion, is really listening to others, treating them with respect, and acknowledging our connectedness.
The truth is that with mindfulness and compassion, all work has the potential to be meaningful depending on how we pay attention to and relate to others and our own experiences. Let’s look at four ways to find meaning in our work lives through different practices of the two concepts.
Four Ways to Find Meaning In Work
1. Mindfully set expectations of what your job means to you.
Steve Jobs has been both lauded and criticized for his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, in which he told graduates, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” On the one hand, Jobs knew the importance of finding meaning in our work—especially given that Americans are clocking plenty of time there. According to a recent Gallup report, we spend 47 hours a week working. On the other hand, Jobs overlooked the fact that it’s possible to find meaning in jobs we may not think we love.
To me, the first step to finding meaning at work is to be mindful of our expectations. Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, has been studying a classification system that can help you recognize how you expect to think of work: as a job, as a career, or as a calling.
If you tune into yourself, you can describe your work orientation and then find ways to gain greater job satisfaction. Ask yourself, Why am I doing this work? Is it because of the paycheck, or with what Wrzesniewski calls a “job orientation”? If so, great: There is value in self-reliance. Are you working at your job because it’s a stepping-stone in your career—and thus have a “career orientation”? Acknowledging this may create emotional freedom through your honesty. Finally, are you doing your work because it is your passion, or with a “calling orientation”? If so, celebrate the fact that, for you, meaning is in the doing.
2. Set a daily intention, and reshape it every day.
Try approaching your work with a deep, authentic intention you locate at your core. For instance, before a meeting or significant phone call, ask yourself, “What do I want from this encounter? Do I want to negotiate more time off? Do I want to facilitate resolution? Do I want to emerge the victor in a debate?” This will help you identify that which is in accord with your values.
Maybe your intention is to approach every person with whom you interact with kindness. A lot of people have told me that they try to use every encounter at work as a time to really listen to others. Doing so diminishes the difficulty of whatever task is at hand, and instead allows these people to find meaning from being respectful.
If your intention is to communicate with others, maybe you make composing email your daily mindfulness practice. Carefully think through the language you are using, and take three breaths after each paragraph you write. When you’re done writing the email, reread it, imagining you are the recipient, and consider its emotional impact.
3. Pay attention fully to whatever is in front of you.
Our hyper-connected digital culture not only celebrates multitasking, but virtually makes it impossible not to multitask at all moments of the day. Why? Multitasking is, in effect, another way of describing the state of distraction. When we “multitask,” we aren’t actually doing multiple things at once; we are quickly shuffling between multiple things, and engaging in what Linda Stone, a former tech executive who is now a thought leader on the human relationship to technology, calls “continuous partial attention.” The term basically refers to those times when we scatter our attention across many assignments and activities, leaving us feeling not only unproductive but also unfulfilled.
The answer to the epidemic of continuous partial attention is simple, though not necessarily easy: Concentrate on one thing at a time, even if it means taking several breaks while working on the task—and make your break a true one and not time spent checking off another item on your to-do list. The breaks are to step back from the activity we might be too caught up in. If we simply breathe, we can then renew our activity with more perspective. “One-pointed attention” restores our energy, because we have more interest and curiosity about our experience, and more concentration for the work we are doing. It also dispels boredom because things are more interesting when we actually notice them. The end result: Our sense of satisfaction on the job increases because we are connecting fully to what is happening rather than just waiting for something better to come along.
4. Emphasize the importance of compassion, connection, and communication.
A great way to find meaning at work is through connection with coworkers, customers, or clients instead of with our job title or position. Over time, we’ve been losing these valuable connections, which can negatively impact our job satisfaction and performance, according to recent research.
For instance, just after Real Happiness at Work came out, I had an inspiring conversation with a woman who fields customer complaints. When I asked her about her job, she told me, to my surprise, that she loves everybody who calls in. “By the time they get to me,” she explained, “I know they’ve talked to several people and are immensely frustrated. I acknowledge that I can’t always help them, but I’m always honest.” Above all, this woman committed herself to really caring about each person she spoke to and to being respectful instead of annoyed.
As she told me about her job, this woman was radiant. Who knows how far that is from the job of her dreams, but she brought something to it—a personal connection to others—that made it meaningful to her.
Meaning is a lofty and expansive concept, but is most accessible to us when we can be available to it in each moment. That’s where mindfulness and compassion come in, providing us with a sense of connection with our experiences, with ourselves and others, and with our values and our sense of purpose. And that connection is portable, available to us whenever we need it—at work and beyond.
Sharon Salzberg is a meditation teacher, New York Times best-selling author, and a co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.