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How To Create More Meaning in Your Life

Discover how to find meaning and purpose in life through your work.

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 a lower risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

People find meaning and purpose in their life and work in incredibly different ways.

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.


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