by Susan Peppercorn

There are as many reasons why people don’t like their jobs as there are jobs themselves. Bad bosses top many people’s lists of gripes, alongside difficult coworkers, limited resources, employer demands to work increasingly long hours, and ethical challenges that may force employees to choose between corporate profitability and doing the right thing. Despite these objections, work provides an important source of meaning to many people. Within jobs themselves, recent research has shown meaningfulness to be the most important aspect of work to employees, trumping pay, rewards, recognition, promotion opportunities, and even working conditions.

Being able to find meaning in your work is a key factor in creating a positive work experience. Instead of pursuing happiness, which is actually the result, not the cause, of well-being, a more effective approach is to instead seek meaning, value, and purpose in what you do each day. But if it were that simple, everyone would be doing it. What is meaningful work exactly, and how can you find more of it? Research findings on what employees in 10 industries found meaningful may surprise you:

Meaning represents a complex range of emotions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, meaningful experiences are not always pleasant. Seeking relevance through meaning is not about searching for the holy grail of happiness, but searching for depth and connection with others. Though feeling happy may become a byproduct of a positive work experience, such as colleagues recognizing the contribution you made to a project, meaning can also be linked to difficult situations. People who report meaningful personal experiences often talk about challenging or even heartbreaking situations, such as nurses or doctors helping grieving family members after the death of a loved one.

Meaning isn’t just for CEOs. The researchers discovered that finding significance in the work you do has nothing to do with your education, position, or level. Hospital workers who deliver meals or empty bedpans can find importance in connecting with patients just like doctors and nurses can, and sanitation workers can find satisfaction in contributing to cleaner and safer neighborhoods. 

Meaning is personal. Meaningful experiences aren’t the same for everyone—such experiences are intensely personal. What gives one person a sense of purpose could be meaningless to someone else. Often when people talk about finding meaning in their work, they’re confusing meaning and mission. Meaning, as you can see from the examples above, can come from almost any type of work. It’s great if you also have a mission that you’re passionate about—but not everyone has the luxury of working for a purpose-based organization, and expecting every workday to be memorable is unrealistic and unfair. 

Meaning comes and goes. Experiencing work as meaningful doesn’t always happen on a consistent basis, let alone a daily one—it tends to be much more episodic than that. So just because you have a bad day today, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have something happen tomorrow that creates a sense of meaning for you. Often that “wow” feeling is connected to making a difference to someone else, persisting in a difficult situation, or solving a complex problem. Although these special experiences may be periodic—or even few and far between—they can have a profound impact on the way you feel about your work. As a coach, when clients thank me for helping them successfully move forward with a difficult career transition or attain a promotion they were working for months to achieve, I often think, “It’s amazing that I get to do what I love!” This doesn’t mean that I don’t have frustrations and disappointments in my job like everyone else—but these peak moments keep me connected to the larger significance of what I do, which helps me put annoyances big and small in perspective.

Meaning is best understood in retrospect. A sense of meaningfulness is rarely experienced as significant at the moment the event takes place. In the research mentioned above, it was only after the interviewees were asked to recall a particularly significant work experience that they were able to make the connection between an event and its larger impact on their lives. An experience or achievement may seem inconsequential at the time it happens, but years later could turn out to be highly meaningful to you or others.

This article is excerpted from Susan’s new book, Ditch Your Inner Critic at Work: Evidence-Based Strategies to Thrive in Your Career.

Susan Peppercorn, CiPP1, is an executive and career coach who enables mid- and senior-level professionals to find their next best career step—whether that’s a promotion, new job, career, or entrepreneurial option. A certified Positive Psychology Coach, Susan was a teaching assistant for CiPP2. A frequently quoted expert, she has been tapped for career advice by publications including the “New York Times”, “Wall Street Journal”, “Fast Company”, “U.S. News & World Report”, and “Harvard Business Review”. Accredited by the International Coaching Federation, Susan is a frequently requested speaker and an executive mentor for Healthcare Business Women’s Association. Her free workbook, “25 Tips for Making a Successful Career Transition”, is available at