The Search for Meaning at Work

When one considers the amount of time that most people spend "at work" during their lifetime, it is no wonder that the search for meaning in a work context is so vitally important. However, when the question of personal meaning arises-and it seems to do so more and more in the so-called post-modern era-work and the workplace still are viewed only infrequently as legitimate sources of reply. For many people, it is as if authentic meaning only happens outside of the so-called work environment!

It should be emphasized up front that the notion of work, as used here, is defined broadly and encompasses both paid and "unpaid" (i.e., volunteer) situations or arrangements. Moreover, when I speak of "work", I am including not simply being in the employ of someone else but also various forms of self-employment, such as operating home-based businesses or serving as independent consultants, "free agents", and other manifestations of the entrepreneurial spirit. Work and the work "place", in this regard, comprise an all encompassing condition from which very few, if any, people over the course of their lives are able to avoid.

It is against this backdrop that the search for meaning unfolds, both in terms of finding meaning in and through work itself and in terms of creating meaningful workplaces. As we will see below, the search for meaning at work can also be viewed as a spiritual quest, one that allows human beings to become fully "alive", wherever and whatever their work may happen to be. In this regard, Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, has said that all people want is to be alive in the workplace. While this may not appear to be rocket science, in many ways, it is a concept that is more difficult to understand and practice than rocket science. In rocket science, one plus one equals two. The dynamics of human affairs, on the other hand, offer little assurance that such principles can be applied consistently and with any degree of precision. The mystery surrounding a topic like the "search for meaning at work" makes it difficult for many people, particularly those concerned with "traditional" business practices, to pay credence to it as an operating value that can be readily translated into bottomline results.

Nevertheless, the quest for meaning at work is becoming a hot topic and, I suspect, will only get hotter. People in all walks of life are becoming more comfortable asking the "BIG" questions, that is, those that deal with their meaning and purpose in life and work, as witnessed by the number of self-help books, organizations, and online support groups that have mushroomed in recent years. The popular media, both electronic and printed, have contributed (or perhaps have reacted) to this meaning-centered dialogue in ways that appear to have only accelerated its growth, intensity, and popular acceptance.

Significantly, it was Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, the founder of Existential Analysis and Logotherapy, who espoused that "man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life." And it is this key principle, Dr. Frankl called it our will to meaning, that prompted me over the years to explore the existential needs and preferences of people at work. Indeed, like the other readers of this Newsletter, I have always been fascinated by how people are able (or unable) to bring personal meaning and fulfillment to their work and everyday lives. Here, I would like to explore briefly the "sources" of meaning that are associated with work and the workplace, as well as advocate for increased attention to the search for meaning in the contemporary era.

Sources of Meaning in Work

Among the foundational building blocks of Dr. Viktor Frankl's Existential Analysis and Logotherapy is the commitment to meaningful values and goals. In brief, Dr. Frankl identified three categories of values that, when actualized, provide sources of authentic meaning: creative values, that is, "by doing or creating something; experiential values, that is, "by experiencing something or encountering someone"; and attitudinal values, that is, "by choosing one's attitude toward suffering." Actualizing such values is not only the quid pro quo of the human quest for meaning but also provides a useful point of reference for reflecting upon the search for meaning at work.

Creative Values

Everyone, in one way or another, draws meaning from doing something or creating something of value. In this regard, the desire to "make a difference" through work is a (if not the) primary source of authentic meaning. Many individuals, in this connection, are focused on their personal "legacy" and want genuinely to leave their mark on the planet in some positive way through the work that they do.

However, doing something or creating something of value is not necessarily driven by images of the long-term future, such as thoughts about one's personal legacy. More often than not, workers-in all industries and sectors-also find meaning in making a difference in the "here and now." For example, I frequently hear people describe the meaning that is derived from their work in words like: "I love the job I have because every day I can look back on at least one thing that helped someone or something."

Experiential Values

Experiencing something of value or encountering someone (in a value-added way) clearly is another source of meaning in everyday life and at work. Besides the experience of making a genuine difference through their work, most people can describe many different kinds of human encounters and other work-related experiences that clearly provide them with abundant sources of meaning. All of these experiences, in one way or another, illustrate that human beings are interdependent and that the search for meaning at work includes, as was mentioned earlier, some sense of the "spiritual", or put differently, the transcendent. Indeed, Dr. Frankl's Logotherapy can be viewed as much more than "meaning therapy" for it not only helped to humanize psychotherapy but has served to spiritualize it as well.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the process of authentic dialogue undergirds the practice of Logotherapy and that the concept of the "logos", which is one of the roots of the word, dialogue, is so fundamental to Dr. Frankl's existential philosophy and therapeutic system. The common Greek word, logos, most frequently but only roughly translated as "the meaning", also has deep spiritual roots. In this regard, one of the first references to logos as "spirit" came from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, around 500 B.C. Moreover, the "logos", as referred to here, is the very essence of Logotherapy-both in terms of its meaning-centered and spiritual connotations. Dr. Frankl, it should be underscored, uniquely stood out among (and above) his contemporaries in interpreting the "logos" in this way.

Attitudinal Values

According to Dr. Frankl, whenever one is confronted with inescapable, unavoidable situations that are associated with suffering, the opportunity to actualize attitudinal values-namely, those that involve one's attitude toward the suffering-becomes a source of deep meaning. To be sure, this is much easier said than done and not everyone, of course, is prepared to confront such situations from this kind of meaning-centered perspective.

Still, along the continuum of possibilities for finding meaning in situations that involve suffering, from surviving a concentration camp as did Dr. Frankl or confronting an incurable disease, on the one side, to dealing with a job loss or similar situation on the other, the attitude that one chooses toward the given situation will largely influence both the response to and outcome from it. The freedom to choose one's attitude in any situation certainly has plenty of opportunity to play itself out within the operating domain of work. Among other things, more reflection by all of us on how to actualize attitudinal values and thereby advance the search for meaning at work is necessary.


So what does all of this mean or suggest for the future? The search for meaning at work is a process-a journey-not a product. In this regard, the future of work in the 21st Century and beyond will depend largely upon how well we prepare for this journey. And preparation for this journey will require all of us to respond authentically to the kinds of meaning-centered questions and issues that have been introduced in this article.

The glass can be perceived either as half empty or half full. We all have the opportunity to choose how we view any situation. We also can choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. In this regard, the search for meaning at work begins with us and, as Dr. Frankl would say, only we, as individuals, can answer for our own life by detecting the meaning at any given moment and assuming the responsibility for weaving our own tapestry of existence. The search for meaning at work, like any other situational context, offers all of us both formidable challenges and ample opportunities for living an authentic life. The journey awaits us!