The Five Qualities of Meaningful Work | MIT Sloan Management Review | 06.01.2016
Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent. Although it is not a well-known fact, the famous motivation theorist Abraham Maslow positioned self-transcendence at the apex of his pyramid of human motivation, situating it beyond even self-actualization in importance. People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment.
The experience of meaningful work can be poignant rather than purely euphoric. People often found their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness. People often cried in our interviews when they talked about the times when they found their work meaningful.
A sense of meaningfulness arose in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that that were generative of strong experiences.
In the instances cited above, it was often only when we asked the interviewees to recount a time when they found their work meaningful that they developed a conscious awareness of the significance of these experiences. Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning were generative of strong experiences.
Other feelings about work, such as engagement or satisfaction, tend to be just that: feelings about work. Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. We found that managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little at these times.