When I retrained to become a psychologist, my MSc research centred on meaning in work. That’s because my work to date (as a management consultant) had been pretty meaningless, which left me pretty depressed, but I didn’t really know what to do about it.
So my research questions were:
- What is meaning in work?
- How can I find it?
I wanted to create a model of meaning in work to help people find it, but first I needed to understand…
What exactly is meaning in work?
There’s debate in academic circles about what meaning is, and I spent months sifting through these definitions. Eventually I felt the clearest description was in a brilliant paper by Eric Klinger, who argued (1998) that meaning can be seen from an evolutionary perspective.
Think about our ancestors, whose survival focused on successfully finding food and avoiding woolly mammoths in harsh and varied terrain. We are the children of brilliant problem solvers, who would move and adapt to new challenges every day. As a species we therefore survived by being able to respond to our environment and meet a succession of context-dependent goals.
The cognitive processes we developed to help us do that (i.e. our thoughts and emotions), all evolved to help us understand the potential dangers and opportunities that came 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 therefore 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).
This means that at the heart of the human operating system is an imperative to UNDERSTAND the stimuli reaching us and to place it in context.
This is a serious business, too.
Consider that without understanding we feel uneasy (it’s not for nothing our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown).
Conversely, understanding something brings relief. Think about the ‘aha!’ moment when you solve a problem. It is pleasant because this is a relief from the burden of not knowing. Significantly, this holds even if the news is bad – think about how a diagnosis of a mystery illness often brings relief.
Meaning is essential because it means we are able to act with purpose and agency. Without it we are unsure and lack direction.
Meaning is therefore comprehension, whether that be for survival (understanding the meaning of a fresh Tiger paw print), or symbolic (like comprehending a word in a sentence) or the existential (like the meaning of one’s work).
As Baumeister (1991) argued, meaning in work and life is a process of sense-making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world. When we have meaning in work we understand ourselves and our work in context. Which feels good.
Without meaning our work feels as though it doesn’t make sense, we feel less agency over our place in the world and a sense of unease grows. A pretty fair summation of my time as a management consultant!
Conversely when we understand ourselves and our place in the world, meaning grows. We know how to relate to the stimuli reaching us and we feel more agency over it. Whilst we still experience difficult emotions, we understand why we are experiencing them and that they are in the service of something meaningful…
And that’s a fair summation of my life as a psychologist.
Klinger, E., (1998). The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications. In The Human Quest for Meaning, Wong, P., & Fry, P., Eds. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of Life. New York.