When I retrained to become a psychologist, my research centred on meaning in work. That’s because my work to date (as a management consultant) had been pretty meaningless, but I did not reallyknow what to do about it.
So my research questions were:
- What is meaning in work?
- How can I find it?
I wanted to create and test a model of meaning which would be scientifically valid but which would also be usable for people who wanted to identify meaning in work for themselves.
In this post I want to deal with the first question, what is meaning in work?
There’s a lot of confusion even in academic circles about what meaning is, and I spent months sifting through these definitions. Eventually however I came to a clear conclusion, via a brilliant psychologist called Eric Klinger, who argued (1998) that meaning can be seen from an evolutionary perspective.
Think about your ancestors. What did their survival depend on? Foraging for food? Avoiding the woolly mammoth? Right on. Humans evolved problem solvers, moving and adapting to meet new challenges and goals. We survived by being able to respond to our environment and meet a succession of context-dependent goals. All of our goals relate to survival, at least at the genetic level.
The interesting bit comes when we consider how we evolved to do this. The cognitive processes we developed (i.e. our senses, thoughts and emotions), all evolved to help us do one thing: understand the potential dangers and opportunities that come our way during the pursuit of our goals. It is understanding that enables action to be taken in the pursuit of goals. And successful pursuit of goals = survival.
Klinger argued that the role of human cognition is to manage the process of comprehension, working to sort out “the ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into the emotional / motivation / action systems” (p31).
What does that mean? It means that at the heart of the human operating system is an absolute imperative to understand the world around us.
This is not a ‘nice to have’. Without understanding we feel uneasy (it’s not for nothing our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown). Conversely, understanding brings relief. Think about the ‘aha!’ moment when you figure a problem out. It is pleasant because this is a relief from the burden of not knowing, even if the news is unpleasant. (Think about how a diagnosis of a mystery illness brings relief). That’s because with understanding we are able to act with purpose. Without it we are unsure and lack direction.
Meaning is therefore simple. It is about comprehension, whether that be for small things (like comprehending a word in a sentence) or very large things (like the meaning of one’s work). With meaning, we know how to respond in terms of both emotion and goal-directed action. As Baumeister (1991) argued, meaning in life is therefore a process of sense-making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world. When we have meaning we understand ourselves in context, and that has always been essential to our survival.
Today, meaning often is not linked to survival. But the inate drive remains the same. Without a sense of meaning our lives can feel as though they don’t make much sense. Our life’s events do not seem to fit any narrative. We begin to feel uneasy, and feel less and less agency over our place in the world. A pretty fair summation of my time as a management consultant!
Conversely, with meaning we understand ourselves and our place in the world. We know how to relate to others. Whilst wee still experience difficult emotions, we understand why we are experiencing them and we generally know what to do about them. And that’s a fair summation of my life as a psychologist.
In the next post, I’ll explore how meaning differs from purpose and why it’s different to happiness, before going on to consider how to actually achieve meaning in work.