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Thought Thursdays
The importance of life meaning – at work



Without work, all life goes rotten.  But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.
Albert Camus

What does meaning in life have to do with the harsh economic realities of the world of work and business? Everything! For most people, having a job serves other functions than the one of earning a living. Indeed, there is an epidemic of soul-searching afoot in the workplace. Employees are no longer content with only a pay cheque and benefits; we want meaning. The search for meaning is a spiritual search for purpose in our existence, for understanding how our life events (including work) fit into a larger context.  Meaning in life is a spiritual quest to find a reason for ‘being’ and to feel that this ‘being’ has significance. It relates to a sense of fulfilling a higher purpose; a purpose that results in a higher significance than just surviving. We want to feel that we have made, or are able to make a difference in the world.  

Life meaning is a core element of spirituality. Spirituality is about fulfilment and a feeling of connectedness with others and the universe. Spirituality should not be equated with religion; spirituality encompasses far more than religion. Although spirituality can manifest itself with religious undertones, religion differs in that it contains theological elements, such as dogma and rituals. These elements may be conducive to enhancing our experience of spirituality, but may also often be restrictive and destructive, and thus be contradictory to the unrestricted nature of spirituality. 

We bring our spiritual selves to work and much of our spiritual odyssey occurs within the context of the workplace. Because work is a central part of human existence, we are searching for a way to connect our working lives with our spiritual lives. However, the importance and relevance of life meaning is mostly ignored in the workplace. This is probably because the eternal quest for the meaning of life is regarded as too philosophical, and not relevant to the harsh realities of the competitive world of work. However, the significance of meaning in life is revealed when phrased as questions: “What makes my life worth living?”, “What are the conditions under which I experience my life as meaningful?”, or “How does my work contribute to making my life meaningful?” 

Viktor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist, Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of the acclaimed Man’s Search for Meaning, argued that the essence of human motivation is the “will to meaning”, a striving to find and realise meaning in life. He reasoned that there is nothing that so effectively helps people to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a purpose in life. Research in psychiatry and clinical psychology supports Frankl’s views, confirming with overwhelming consistency that a sense of meaning is an important correlate of mental and psychological health. For instance, higher levels of meaning have been found to correlate positively with self-esteem, control, life satisfaction, engagement, a generous attitude towards others and positive attitudes. In contrast, lack of life meaning (meaninglessness) has been found to correlate with a lack of well-being and with psychopathology in a roughly linear sense. Among others, lack of meaning manifests in loss of social identity, social isolation, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, neuroticism and anxiety. Particular groups of people, such as prison inmates and schizophrenic patients experience less meaning than people in general. 

These findings show that meaning relates to almost every component of well-being with only slight variations in the strength of the associations. They confirm the critical role of meaning in maintaining and preserving psychological health, whereas meaninglessness is associated with pathological outcomes. It is thus to be expected that having a sense of life meaning has an important influence on positive work attitudes and outcomes. 

Indeed, there is a rapidly increasing body of research that confirms that spirituality, in general, and life meaning, specifically, influence positive work outcomes and attitudes significantly. People who have a higher sense of meaning show more commitment towards their careers and are more willing to make significant career changes to align their work with their sense of meaning. As a result, they experience more career satisfaction and career progress. They are even willing and eager to continue to work in the absence of financial necessity. However, a sense of meaning does not result in commitment that is forced or unbalanced – for instance sacrificing themselves for their work, or allowing work to dominate their lives. People with a higher sense of life meaning are more content, and understand the importance and necessity to make time for healthy introspection. They generally tend to lead healthier and more balanced lifestyles. Similarly, people having a sense of meaning are more altruistic and less selfish, focusing outside themselves and attending to the plight of others. 

People with life meaning are generally more motivated. A significant source of intrinsic motivation is rooted in our sense of meaning. Intrinsic motivation stems from a deeper psychological level than is often acknowledged, i.e. the spiritual level. This is important as we know that the most powerful predictor of job satisfaction is intrinsic motivation, not the other way around. Work satisfaction and life meaning go together. A sense of meaning in life provides the motivation to execute our daily work, even if the work itself does not particularly stimulate us. Positive, yet challenging life goals have their roots in a sense of life meaning. Meaning in life effectively contributes towards goal orientation that supports willingness to learn new things and willingness to attempt goals with a high possibility of failure.  

We cannot ignore the important role that meaning in life has at work and in the workplace. We attach meanings to work beyond that of economic utility. We want to see a larger purpose in our work. Most external methods we apply in our attempts to motivate people are in vain unless they also enhance a sense of meaning in people’s existence, or meaningfulness in the tasks that they are responsible for. 

Our workplaces are spiritual places. Business education and leadership have a spiritual tone that we are not always aware of, yet cannot ignore. Our task as leaders is also on a much deeper level of spiritual interaction with subordinates than is often anticipated. Similarly, as educators, we need to connect on a deeper spiritual level with students than we often do through our business and leadership courses. In addition to everything else we do, we have a duty to assist people on their journey to find meaning in their existence; we need to enable them to a find and fulfil a higher life purpose through their work. Because, according to Friedrich Nietzsche:  He who has a ‘why’ to do something, can bear with almost any ‘how’.


Professor Mias de Klerk teaches Human Capital Management and Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. His research interest is individual behaviour in organisations, including workplace spirituality, business ethics, psychodynamics, motivation and work commitment, transformation, and emotions in organisations.

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