The Truth About Finding Purpose in Your Work

What is the secret to finding purpose in everyday work? And are we looking in the right place? Here's what the research tells us.

The tale goes something like this:

One day, most likely in the 1670s, Christopher Wren was observing the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral. The original cathedral had been destroyed some years prior by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and a great army of workers had been enlisted to rebuild it according to Wren’s design.

On this particular day, Wren observes three bricklayers. The first, crouched on a scaffold, works in a sluggish and lethargic state. The second is more upright and doing a better job, yet still not working as hard and fast as the third, who stands tall and works with speed and precision.

Intrigued, Wren asks the bricklayers a simple question: “What are you doing?”

The first bricklayer’s response is short and downbeat: “I am laying bricks,” he says, before returning to putting one brick on top of another.

The second bricklayer has a broader take: “I am building a cathedral,” he says, before returning to the task in hand.

“And you?” Wren asks the third bricklayer.

“Me?” the third bricklayer says with a smile on his face. “I am building the house of God.”

The parable of the bricklayers is a powerful illustration of perspective. Each of them has the same occupation, conducting the same duties and receiving the same pay, and yet their subjective experience of their work differs so markedly. In the language of organisational psychologists, one has a job, one has a career, and one has a calling or purpose.

What Does It Mean to Have Purpose in Work?

Think for a moment about the people in your workplace. Why is it that some experience the same occupations as jobs, others as careers, and others as callings? And what does it actually mean to have a “calling” or find a deeper purpose in our work?

#1: Purpose is personal

The first important lesson from the bricklayers is that purpose is a question of perspective. What we experience as a calling is often a result of passions, personality, and circumstances. Some of us find deeper connections with our jobs, and some of us confine our core purpose to providing for our families and giving them the best start in life. The salient point is that you don’t need a calling and you shouldn’t be shamed for earning a living doing something you only identify with as a job. In fact, the research suggests most of us are in that boat.

#2: Purpose is dynamic

The second lesson is that you don’t necessarily need to go looking for your calling or purpose. As organisational psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski argues, purpose in our work isn’t some “magical entity that exists in the world, waiting to be discovered.” Instead, we can find a sense of purpose right where we are, by continually looking at how it links with our values and connects with other people.

#3: Purpose is connected

That leads us nicely to the third lesson. Among those who have found their calling, one common theme prevails: their sense of connectedness with others. It appears that a sense of purpose is a consequence of a sense of valuable contribution to the lives of others. In other words, building “the house of God” serves a greater good than oneself. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth sums it up nicely as “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others.”

The Benefits of Purpose at Work

Granted, this is all a bit fluffy around the edges. But this idea of purpose at work has some serious implications. Those who identify their work as a calling are generally more satisfied and fulfilled at work. In turn, this can have huge benefits for performance, progression, and long-term physical and mental well-being. It’s worth us taking a few minutes to explore these implications.

#1: Productivity

The link between happiness and productivity is well-established. For example, in a series of four experiments, researchers at the University of Warwick found that participants shown comedy clips before completing a set of tasks exhibited higher productivity than a neutral group of participants.

But this effect is all the more important when we look at the longer-term implications. Longitudinal studies have demonstrated a sizeable effect of long-term satisfaction on productivity, as well as creativity. Though the authors caution about interpreting the direction of causation, studies consistently identify an association between job satisfaction and the quality of our work.

#2: Career Progression

Of course, if the quality of our work improves, this drastically increases the odds of career advancement and success in the workplace. While it is often assumed that an employee is happy because they are successful, research suggests an alternative view: that happiness regularly precedes measures of career progression.

#3: Authenticity

Working with a purpose also feels authentic. And when we do something that feels true to ourselves, humanistic psychology suggests there are a raft of benefits. As I’ve written before on this blog, higher individual measures of authenticity are associated with greater happiness, higher self-esteem and improved relationships with others.

#4: Physical Health

A sense of purpose in life has also been associated with a range of physical health benefits, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer disease.

Perhaps even more significant, multiple studies have assessed the association between sense of purpose and mortality, adjusting for other markers of physical, psychological and affective well-being. A longitudinal study of more than 73,000 people in Japan found that a sense of purpose in life – known as ikigai in Japan – was associated with improved longevity among the participants.

There is also growing statistical support for a so-called “retirement effect”. Numerous studies, like this one from Greece, suggest that earlier retirees have a higher rate of mortality – in this case, a 5-year increase in age at retirement was associated with a 10% decrease in mortality, even after adjusting for potential distorting associations. A growing perspective is that the loss of purpose from work inflicts a heavy blow on body and mind.

How Can We Increase Our Sense of Purpose?

Of course, there are lots of caveats to studies on the subjective idea of purpose – not least how it’s measured in the first place, but also how research adjusts for other associative factors.

The bottom line, however, is this: purpose matters. And though there is much to admire in dropping the idea of your calling in favour of keeping a roof over heads and mouths fed, it needn’t be a mutually exclusive choice. We can foster a sense of purpose in our day-to-day lives through a little conscious effort.

Job Crafting

Amy Wrzesniewski, one of the leading academics in this field, suggests employees take a proactive approach to redesigning their own jobs to increase satisfaction, engagement and resilience. Job crafting can help us shift our perspective from job to career to calling.

In practice, Wrzesniewski suggests three areas where we can apply job crafting techniques:

  • Number, type, or nature of tasks. By emphasising or taking on additional tasks related to one’s passion and changing tasks to cope with adversity, we can begin to extract more satisfaction from our work.
  • Interactions with others. By building energising and helpful relationships and expanding our roles to have a greater benefit for others, we can increase our sense of connectedness and meaning from our work.
  • Cognitive perception of work. By reframing the social purpose of our work to align with our passions, we can increase the level of meaning and enjoyment we extract from it.

Embrace Play

I would add another important item to that list: embrace play. Play allows us to experiment with ideas, empathise with others, and take risks. Humour in the office, for example, can help build better working relationships and blur the distinct line between dreary work and enjoyable home life. Using games to brainstorm ideas can bring people together while fostering innovation and greater meaning in our work. And playing with our ways of working can make our jobs easier while fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Ask the Right Questions

Sometimes, however, none of this will make a blind bit of difference. Sometimes we do not have the autonomy to take on projects aligned with passions or to play with processes. And sometimes it’s simply never going to feel like our purpose, no matter what we do.

So what then?

One of the most unhelpful questions I have asked myself over the last decade is “what is my purpose?”. It achieves the sum total of nothing.

As I’ve grown up a bit, I’ve started to look at this differently. I’ve accepted that my current career isn’t forever, and I’ve tried to maximise enjoyment while I’m in it. But it will never be a “calling”.

Meanwhile, instead of trying to answer the magical question of “what is my purpose?”, I’ve turned instead to asking three other simple questions:

  1. What am I grateful for?
  2. What are my key passions?
  3. How can they connect and help other people?

For most of us, “purpose” is not found through existential soul searching. This only serves to make us more miserable. Instead, it’s found in the long-term exploration of our passions, and via their connection to others.

Slowly shifting your perspective on your job, finding satisfaction outside it, using these three questions to explore interests over the long-term – these are the things that may one day make you one of the lucky few who can say they have found their calling. These are the things that can take you from putting one brick on top of another to “building the house of God”.

Summary:

  • The sense of purpose we get from our jobs is dynamic and personal.
  • Research suggests that purpose in our work increases job satisfaction, productivity, creativity, career progression, happiness, and physical well-being.
  • We can shape our existing jobs to provide a greater sense of purpose through ‘job crafting’ and embracing play.
  • We should avoid asking ourselves “what is my purpose?” and instead focus on exploring passions and how they connect with others over the long term.

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