Finding Meaning

In his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankle recalls his time spent in a Nazi Concentration Camp and the thoughts regarding meaning which he developed while there.  Viktor came to believe that, among other factors:

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  3. We have inalienable freedom to find meaning.

While most of us cannot imagine, nor will likely ever encounter, the degree of suffering that Viktor saw firsthand, the quest for meaning continues daily for individuals throughout the world.  Many individuals attempt to find meaning in their life through their jobs, and as leadership coach John Maxwell and others have argued, the amount of fulfillment and meaning that is derived therein is directly relational to how one views their work.  For example:

  • People “with a job” see their work as a chore and their paycheck as their reward.  They work because they have to.
  • People “with career” like the concept of advancing and succeeding.  They will apply themselves and produce greater results.
  • People “with a calling” find their work fulfilling and think that it feels meaningful, leverages their strengths, and contributes to the greater good.

This is why two individuals with the same roles can view their work in entirely different frames.  As one common illustration suggests, one school janitor may believe he or she is merely picking up another person’s waste, while another believes that they are aiding in creating an environment where students have the best opportunity to learn.  In one study, one accountant framed his role as “combatting terrorism by helping financial institutions guard against money laundering”, while another as “fighting to keep jobs in America by helping companies with federal tax credits”.  These two individuals derived greater personal meaning (and therefore satisfaction and fulfillment) than accountants in the study who saw their roles as mere jobs.  Examples such as these help illustrate that you have complete control over how you view your daily work, which in turn will impact the amount of meaning you derive from it.

So how does one begin to reframe their work to find meaning within?  A few ideas to keep in mind:

  • Remember why you are working.  (Have you thought about your personal vision lately?)
  • Appreciate what you’ve done so far (and stop comparing your own journey to others).
  • Don’t take your work for granted.  Whatever you are doing, someone less fortunate would be eager to do the same.
  • Remember that your work is helping somebody in some capacity.  Every person matters to another.

Again, it cannot be overstated: you have the ability to find meaning, happiness, and fulfillment in any work or environment.  As Mike Rowe, host of the television show Dirty Jobs, once stated: “…the big lesson that came from working with so many of [his guests] for so long was that by and large, as a group, they were happier than most of my friends; they were better balanced than most of my friends; and they had just the kind of peace that I think comes from [passing] the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ test. (i.e., realizing that their life is important).”

The impact of finding personal meaning extends beyond oneself.  For employers, you’ll be glad to know that employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times likely to stay with their current organizations, the highest single contributor to job happiness than any other survey variable tested.  Those individuals also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and were 1.4 times more engaged at work than those who failed to derive meaning from their work.  These factors should be taken into account as employers seek to be further engaged in creating a positive social impact on the world around them.

Of course, your life’s meaning doesn’t have to be tied solely, or even at all, to your job.  Is there a volunteer effort which you have a personal passion for?  Then devote as much time as you can to its pursuit.  Do you have an idea for something you believe has value?  Then stop wasting your precious time and go chase it.  Are you raising children or caring for elderly parents?  Then do so with all your heart.  And if you are still struggling to find meaning in your life, pause for a moment and reflect on the “simple” things in life which matter most, including your family and friends.  Seeking and finding that meaning, as one psychologist suggests, will ultimately lead to greater personal happiness.  Perhaps this is why journalist and storywriter Leo Rosten once stated that “The purpose of life is not to be happy – but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”  Happiness lay in having meaning.

Jeremiah Clark, M.A., is the co-owner of Appalachian Digital, a website development agency.  He is also a Lead Systems Analyst with the Cleveland Clinic Healthcare System.  You can contact Jeremiah at or connect with him on LinkedIn at Jeremiah Clark.