How to Find Meaningful and Satisfying Work

by Stacey on September 11, 2012

How to Find Meaningful and Satisfying Work

 Jen Gresham wrote a great article for the people on her No Regrets Career Academy newsletter list. (You really want to receive Jen’s articles, even if you’re not looking for a new career, because she always offers incredible insight into many aspects of human behavior, and you’ll always learn something valuable.)

She talked about a great interview with Social Triggers blogger Derek Halpern and Duke psychologist and economist Dan Airely. She wrote that this interview is meant for marketers, so you may not find the entire article interesting, but check out this fascinating excerpt that looks at what might otherwise be considered “irrational behavior” in mice when researchers gave them the option to stop working:

Jensen asked this question: Would mice prefer to get free food or would they enjoy working for food?

So basically he does experiments with mice – he teaches them for a long time a particular behavior, and he taught them for a long time where there’s free food and under what conditions they can receive food for free, and under what conditions they can work for the food. And then he put them in a situation in which they started by having some free food and then the free food stopped, and the food that they work for appeared.

Then at some point, they had a choice. The free food appeared again. And now the mice could choose whether they want to work for food or whether they want to get free food. And they could never finish the food. So it’s not as if they could say, “Oh well, do the free food first, and then the other food.”

It was just basically a choice of where they want their next piece of food to come from. And what he found, was that out of about 200 mice, 99% preferred to work for their food. It doesn’t mean that they wanted all the time to work for their food, but the vast majority had a preference for working for their food.

This was a very surprising result. Because it said that these animals are not doing a cost-benefit analysis of saying, “What’s the least amount of energy I can spend to get some food?” Instead they were deriving some pleasure from actually getting themselves fed.

And since then, these results have been replicated in all kinds of other animals, and it turns out that from all the animals that have been tested, there’s one animal that is perfectly rational – that never works for food when it has access to free food, and that’s the cat – the common household cat.

So you could say that’s the only perfectly rational animal. Now, I think the really interesting issue is to say that if this is something so basic, that we see in mice, that we see in chimps, that we see in guinea pigs, in dogs, and all kinds of other animals, what does it mean for us as human beings?

Jen wrote that  you she got chills when she read it, and so did I.

I’ll tell you what I think it means for us as human beings: we are wired for meaningful work.

Your life may not look exactly the way you envision it – after all, much of your vision may be influenced by comparisons with other people’s lives, when you really have no idea what those lives are really like.

At the same time, though, your core needs – to create meaningful work and to feel valued for who you really are – are absolutely achievable.

And so the goal isn’t to achieve “perfection.” Instead, take what you most value about yourself and devote it to what most concerns you in the world. If you need some suggestions: Consider working at the Boys and Girls Club, in your local candidate’s office, in your community garden, or at your kids’ school.

Take me as an example. I have a lot of big personal and work development projects: I want to have a healthier and more fit body, to be of more service to my community, to have improved and up-to-date administrative and financial processes, to write a new book, to book speaking engagements and to create fabulous products and services.

That’s a big list, and it’s a little overwhelming. But each day, I take a small step toward completing it.

On the health front, I don’t run marathons like I did in my early thirties, but I do exercise every day. I try to look at my almost-43-year-old body with love and appreciation. Running for hours on a crisp fall morning up mountain trails, while a lovely daydream, will not be happening again. But I know that moving a little more, eating a little less and remembering the joy of sweating will ease my body and mind into a state of better health.

And while I want to have my book sold, my products done and my administrative ends tied up right now, I keep plugging away at them, happy that they are one step closer today than they were yesterday.

I find meaning and satisfaction in the work I do in the present moment, and I declare myself satisfied. I imagine the mice may be taking the same approach.

Tell me what you think is the “secret sauce” to a happy and meaningful life.

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