Does the sound of the alarm clock fill you with a sense of resignation, or even dread, about another day of unfulfilling work? Odds are, that's exactly the case. Just 16 percent of people with steady employment recently surveyed by Gallup said they feel engaged with their job. While that’s up from just 13 percent in a 2013 survey, it’s still pretty bleak.
Meaningful work is positively correlated with all kinds of emotional and psychological plusses, from employee wellbeing to higher levels of innovation and productivity. The hard part is figuring out how to find it, in large part because a career that's meaningful to one person could feel hollow to someone else, depending on what personally motivates each person.
Psychologist Tatjana Schnell breaks the likelihood that you'll find your work meaningful into four core factors: how well the job plays to your personal strengths, the perceived social significance of your job, whether you think your employer is ethical, and the employer’s role in positively impacting society on a broader scale. Of course, how important each factor is to you is highly subjective.
To help inspire you to find work that you truly enjoy (or even love), here are some research-backed tips for getting more engaged in your current job—or finding a vocation that feels like a calling.
Fight existential indifference
A lack of soul-searching is a key reason people fall into unengaging careers. This is especially problematic for younger workers who feel overwhelmed by the complex modern job market, and fall prey to “existential indifference,” says Schnell, who specializes in the pursuit of meaning in life.
“Existentially indifferent people believe that they cannot take control of their own lives, and that their competence is insufficient,” she said. “What’s more, they report a reluctance to explore and understand themselves.”
One way to get out of this psychological rut is by setting aside time to reflect on past job experiences.
“I think we just move from gig to gig without even stepping back for five or ten minutes and saying: ‘What did I love most about that? What did I learn?’” said Beverly Kaye, who has authored numerous bestselling books about career engagement. "We move too quickly to the next thing without taking time to unpack what we’ve just done and learned, and the parts of it that give us thrills, and the parts that don’t satisfy us.”
Once workers have a firmer grasp of their own talents, weaknesses, and motivations, they will be far better equipped to open a meaningful dialog with managers and mentors—a crucial step toward stronger engagement at work. For those who feel too intimidated to ask their bosses to set aside time to discuss their goals and preferences, or who feel their managers are unreceptive, Kaye recommends starting by talking with peers, and building an action plan from there.
Be the boss of your work day
Even if you are not in love with your job, one of the best ways to get more engaged at work is to write out your tasks, and prioritize them. “Planning gives employees a sense of control and ownership of their work, which is important for employees to find their work meaningful,” said organizational psychologist Justin Weinhardt, who co-authored a 2018 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology that compared the efficacy of planning techniques for 187 professionals in various fields.
"Contingent planning,” a strategy of anticipating workplace distractions, was especially effective in improving productivity and engagement. “Employees need to monitor times in the day where they have many distractions, and employees need to figure out how to get back on track after those interruptions,” Weinhardt advised.
One way to refocus on tasks after a distraction, as an individual, is to practice mindfulness and awareness of your own bad procrastination habits, business productivity expert Edward G. Brown told the Washington Post. For instance, you can set a limit on the number of times you will check your personal email or visit your favorite time-sucking website each day.
It’s also helpful to request uninterrupted concentration time from your manager, especially if you work in the open office layouts and similar environments where frequent interruptions are likely. Weinhardt recommends that people in these situations arrange one-hour work sessions with co-workers, which also double as team-building exercises, or scheduling personal work time in a meeting-style format so that co-workers think twice before distracting you.
“People rarely interrupt meetings,” Weinhardt said. “Honestly, I do this often.”
Remember that money ≠ meaning
Money is a central motivator to work for most people, but it’s not necessarily the reason why people engage with their jobs. In fact, the impact of salary on emotional well-being taps out at around $75,000 a year, as reported in the much cited 2010 paper by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman in PNAS. “High income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being,” according to the study. (A second study from the same year in the Journal of Vocational Behavior found that there is essentially no correlation between salary and job satisfaction.)
The employment data site PayScale has ranked some of the most meaningful careers based on a combination of self-reported pay, satisfaction and meaning. Some jobs that rise to the top include clergy, teachers, surgeons, psychiatrists, and other jobs associated with public service. Workers in some of the lowest paid jobs, such as kindergarten teachers who typically earn less than $40,000, report surprisingly high satisfaction rates, as do those in the highest paying jobs, including anesthesiologists whose median pay is nearly $300,000 a year.
In other words, when pursuing a vocation, it’s better to let your personal passions—and crucially, the type of people you enjoy working with—guide your decision-making, as opposed to focusing solely on salary, lest you end up in a permanent state of existential indifference.