FINDING MEANING IN LIFE AND WORK: UK and US evidence on the activities and jobs that we find most meaningful

12 Apr 2021

Most economists assume that work is something we do not really want to do. We are happy to give up our leisure time and expend effort only because this labour can be exchanged for the consumption goods we need and want. There is growing evidence, however, that this assumption is completely false. Many of us value work for its own sake but crucially that depends very much on the kind of work that we do.

New research by Andrew Bryce adds to this evidence by showing that work can be intrinsically good for us because it is meaningful and worthwhile. Based on data from large national surveys in both the UK and the United States, he finds that the meaningfulness people derive from their work varies considerably across different careers. For many people, it is not the pay cheque nor even the enjoyment of work but rather the sense of contributing to the greater good that provides this motivation.

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The research draws on the concept of ‘eudaimonic wellbeing’: the extent to which we have meaning and purpose in our lives. Irrespective of the amount of pleasure and pain (‘hedonic wellbeing’) we experience, we also value having a sense of meaning in life and this is an important aspect of our overall wellbeing.

Using the American Time Use Survey, Dr Bryce analysed the experiences of more than 20,000 adults in the United States who reported everything they did on a given day and also how they felt during those activities.

In terms of hedonic wellbeing (happiness, sadness, stress, pain, tiredness), work was one of the least enjoyable activities that people did on a typical day. In terms of meaningfulness (eudaimonic wellbeing), however, work ranked much higher. It was found to be significantly more meaningful than activities such as shopping and leisure, but significantly less meaningful than caring for others, religious activities, sport and exercise, volunteering and communicating by phone and internet.

The extent to which work was found to be meaningful relative to other activities varied significantly by job type. The occupations providing the most meaningfulness were community and social service occupations (such as social workers, counsellors and clergy), educational occupations, legal occupations and health practitioners.

People in community and social service occupations also experienced the most pleasure (hedonic wellbeing) in their work, but this was not the case for education, health and legal workers, all of whom had less enjoyable and more stressful jobs than average. This suggests that there can be a trade-off between enjoying your work and finding it meaningful. Similar results were found for the UK.

These results have important implications about what motivates people to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. For many people, it is not the pay cheque nor even the enjoyment of work but rather the sense of contributing to the greater good that provides this motivation. It is not hard to see how this can be exploited.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, there was widespread condemnation of the 1% pay increase offered to NHS staff in England in the recent Budget. At the same time, it is debatable whether a more generous offer would be necessary to retain staff and attract people to the health professions. Nothing could be more meaningful than saving lives and that is ample motivation in itself.

Andrew Bryce

University of Sheffield | a.m.bryce@sheffield.ac.uk