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Making meaning

Read why most people aren't born with a burning sense of purpose, but make meaning and purpose by experimenting in their lives.
SPEAKER: This is Deakin University where I work, and universities are meaning-making machines. Everything we do is about trying to understand how the world works– in our research, in how we teach students, in how we engage with the communities around us. And that’s why I love working at a university. It makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger. And it makes me feel like I’m making a contribution by being part of this larger system. And I’m no different to anyone else. The research is actually really clear about this. The number one thing that drives people’s work satisfaction is a sense of purpose. A sense of meaning. A sense that they are making a contribution.
And making a contribution can happen in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s about the colleagues we work with. It’s about us supporting them and them supporting us. Sometimes it’s about doing what we do really well and really thoroughly and getting a sense of satisfaction out of that. When we talk of finding purpose or meaning, sometimes we tend to think of this as something earth shattering, but it’s not. It happens in all sorts of ways. And even though I work here in this big university, I have to remind myself of this all the time. And it often comes down to when I’m having a conversation with a colleague, and I see them smile at the end of our conversation.
And I know something’s happened in that interaction. Sometimes I hear of one of our students who’s done something astounding and that drives it home to me again. So that negotiation of a sense of meaning always comes from being part of that big picture and then being part of those small moments and that moment to moment interaction with the people we’re with every day. That’s a really, really big part of resilience.
We aren’t born with a burning sense of purpose. We make meaning and purpose by experimenting in our lives.
Carol Ryff and colleagues at Wisconsin-Madison University have been working on a model of happiness and wellbeing that draws its framework from the ancient Greek notion of ‘flourishing’.
This idea of wellbeing as flourishing is similar to Laurie Leitch’s idea, which we explored in the first week of this course: that is, resilience isn’t just the ability to ‘bounce back’ in times of adversity, but is also about our capacity to be ‘more generative during times of stability’.
In the next few steps we’ll explore the relationship between meaning or purpose and how our interactions with – and empathy for – others are related, and how these help us to flourish.

Meaning, purpose and positive relationships

Two of the essential components in Ryff’s framework are purpose in life and positive relationships.
Ryff and her colleagues have also shown that those who have a clear sense of purpose live longer, show better cognitive skills with ageing, have lower rates of depression and are at lower risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
People find meaning and purpose in their life and work in incredibly different ways.


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For example, University of California, Berkeley, psychologists Morten Hansen and Dacher Keltner suggest this can range from altruism to achieving status and power. However, other research shows that the primary way most workers tend to find meaning is by having a sense that their efforts are having a positive impact on other people’s lives.

‘Crafting’ to find meaning in work

In a fascinating study, Amy Wrzesniewski from the Yale School of Management found that some people actively ‘craft’ their job to find additional meaning.
They do this by choosing to frame their work in particular ways or by focusing on certain aspects of their job.
For example, Wrzesniewski found that hospital workers who cleaned patient rooms clearly fell into two groups: those who found their job meaningless and difficult, and those who found meaning and satisfaction in their work.
The group that found meaning tended to focus on the interactions they had with patients and had developed particular routines to emphasise this. One worker, for instance, described how they set up their rounds to circle back to the rooms of those who didn’t seem to have many visitors.
As Wrzesniewski notes:
It was not just that they were taking the same job and feeling better about it, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and whistling. It was that they were doing a different job.

Your task

Watch the video and reflect on what gives you meaning in your work (you may also want to watch Wrzesniewski’s video listed under the see also resources).
  • Has this changed over time?
  • Have you used ‘crafting’ strategies to re-emphasise or redefine some of your work to make it more meaningful?
  • Can you see this approach as being useful?
Share your thoughts on job crafting and finding meaning in work with other learners in the comments.
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