Purpose: A Unique-to-You Aspect of Workplace Happiness

happy workplace purpose Feb 11, 2020

Purpose is one of my favorite topics in the field of positive psychology as it applies to working and the workplace. I’ve always felt that whatever my occupation is, it should put some good into the world in addition to pay in my pocket. So it made intuitive sense when I learned that purpose is a key ingredient in happiness, generally, and specifically workplace happiness. 

Psychologists generally define happiness as the mix of positive feelings with a sense of purpose or meaning. Happiness at work, therefore, is not simply that someone tends to feel more positive than negative* emotions at work. Happiness at work is the mix of feeling positively at work while also finding a meaning in your work that has nothing to do with a paycheck or profits. 

What that meaning is can vary widely. Nonprofit or government jobs are often considered meaningful: profit is taken out of the equation (usually - revenue is actually really important for most), so we assume that these jobs are all about doing good things and helping people; therefore, every job at a nonprofit or in a government must have meaning in it. Right? Well, not necessarily. 

I recently came across researcher Nick Craig’s work, via this podcast and something he wrote on Forbes. He highlights the idea that purpose is highly individual. Here’s an example: 

Perhaps you lead fundraising at a nonprofit that feeds people. Every dollar you raise goes directly to feeding hungry people through a network of food banks and soup kitchens. Because of the work you do, there are people in your neighborhood who can go to bed feeling full instead of hungry. That’s purpose, right? 

It is certainly putting good into the world! But it’s not necessarily your purpose. According to Craig, purpose is

“a unique gift we bring to the world and always have.”

In other words, purpose does not change as we change jobs or other circumstances in life. Purpose is unique to the person, not the job or organization where they work. If you work at that anti-hunger nonprofit, a lot of what you do is not feeding people - it’s administrative work or meetings or planning. Those tasks might be in service to the core goal, but they don’t directly tie into the goal - those tasks are not feeding people. Or maybe you feed people at the food bank, but you view your job as more about inventory and bagging groceries. That’s not a feeling of purpose. 

What might examples of purpose be in this example of working at a nonprofit that feeds people? It depends, because purpose is unique to the individual. The fundraiser might feel their unique purpose is to bring joy to others, and in this role they do so by helping people connect their money with feeding and helping others. They feel their purpose when they connect with donors and help them see the impact of their dollars. The food bank worker might feel their unique purpose is to bring organization to chaos, thus taking great pride - and feeling their purpose - in handling inventory and helping people organize their food choices in a way that’s easy for them to carry home. 

The point of purpose is that it is unique to you - no matter what your job is, your purpose stays the same. When you’re working from purpose - whether for pay or not - you feel energized and interested and you care about what you’re doing. It might be challenging to verbalize your purpose, but you know it when you feel it. 

It is important to be able to verbalize your purpose and work from your purpose, because companies working from a purpose - companies where everyone knows the “why” of what they do - tend to be far more successful than others. See, for example, Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why (which I’ll blog about later this month). I suspect there is a deep connection between purpose-driven companies and employee engagement, but more about that later.

Not sure you feel connected to purpose at work? I’ll blog next about a nifty process anyone can engage in to better fit their job to their purpose in life - job crafting. Stay tuned!

*Yes, I know emotions are emotions and all serve a *ahem* purpose. None of them are inherently good or bad. I do find that it’s simpler to talk broadly of emotions that are “negative” when talking about emotions that might be more difficult or may cause social friction - anger, anxiety, sadness, etc.

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