ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
As the world begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit in fits and starts, lots of us are thinking about what the new normal should look like. People laid off from service jobs, might be wondering whether to go back to them. Essential workers who carried us through the crisis might be considering less stressful careers.
Some of those who went fully remote want to stick with it, others are keen to try hybrid. It seems like a good opportunity to reflect and maybe reset. So even as we, especially managers, focus on the logistics of getting businesses back up and running again, we should also be using this time to rethink how and why we work.
Our guest today, Emily Esfahani Smith did that years ago. She was working in a job that wasn’t making her happy. So she decided to quit and instead study positive psychology. She wrote a book called The Power of Meaning which is about how to find true fulfillment in life including work. And more recently she’s been thinking about the culture of achievement and how COVID-19 might change things.
Emily, thanks so much for being on the show.
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: Thanks for having me, Alison.
ALISON BEARD: So as I said, this is a big reset moment for many of us. What are you hearing from people about how this crisis has changed the way they’re thinking about their work and their careers?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: No. You’re absolutely correct. I think the past 16, 17 months however long it’s been, has been a moment where a lot of people are rethinking how they want the structure of their lives to look like, how they want the relationship between work and the rest of their lives including family life to change.
And what I hear a lot of, one is people turning towards a search for meaning and purpose. I think the last year and a half has been really difficult for so many people. There’s been so much loss, whether you’ve lost a loved one, lost a job, lost just their ordinary routines of daily life. And we know from lots of psychology research that when people do go through moments of loss and adversity, it does lead them to dig more deeply into themselves and ask themselves big questions like, is this what I want to be doing? What is my purpose in light of all this? So I think that’s one thing I’m seeing.
The other thing that I’m seeing is people thinking more about mental health. There was already even before the Covid pandemic, a mental health crisis sweeping across our society, nearly every indicator of mental illness from suicide, to depression, to anxiety, to burnout, has been rising for many years and all of those trends accelerated during the pandemic. There was a poll that came out early on in the pandemic within a few months of it showing that this was the unhappiest Americans have been in 50 years. And so I think that’s really opened up a discussion about mental health, mental illness, and the role that it should play in our lives. And especially in our work lives. What I’m seeing is not only people wondering about how they can be more resilient during times of crisis but also how we can emerge from crisis stronger, better, experiencing more growth than we did before.
ALISON BEARD: And so one way to do that is to think about meaning and purpose and real fulfillment, not happiness. So how do you begin to approach that analysis and reflection?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: I came into writing about psychology and positive psychology in particular, which is the sub field of psychology that deals with well-being specifically interested in this distinction between meaning and happiness. It was one that I had learned about in the research when I was studying positive psychology in graduate school and it really resonated with me because I felt that in our culture, there was so much emphasis placed on happiness – that was set up as the end goal of life that we should all pursue happiness, and that if we do, our lives will be wonderful, will be perfect; that the missing ingredient to life is happiness. And so if we follow these 10 steps to make ourselves happier, things will be really great.
But what I saw around me and this was nearly 10 years ago now and it continues to be the case is that there are so many people who don’t orient their lives around the pursuit of happiness, they’re more oriented around the pursuit of meaning which is a pursuit that’s less about maximizing your positive emotions and minimizing your negative emotions than about connecting and contributing to something bigger than yourself whether it’s the work that you do, your family, your community, if you’re a spiritual and religious person, a sense of the sacred or the divine.
And those pursuits that are most meaningful, what’s paradoxical about them is that they don’t always make us happy as we’re pursuing them. Raising children is a classic example, it’s one of the most profound sources of meaning in life for people. And yet it’s difficult, it’s stressful.
Our work is another example where especially if we do love what we do, we often throw ourselves into it and sacrifice on behalf of it and it’s not always fun. And yet we do it because it’s meaningful to us, not necessarily because it brings us that instant happiness.
And so that distinction has been with me as I’ve been thinking about the past year and a half with COVID, which has been a time when happiness hasn’t really been available to us. We haven’t been able to go on vacations or have the parties or all those delights of life that were part of life before the pandemic. And so what do we do in light of that? Well, there’s this other form of wellbeing that’s available to us which is meaning and in particular, meaning making, trying to make sense of this last year, how it’s changed the story of our lives, if it’s changed the story of our lives and where it fits in to the bigger picture, how we’ve changed as a result of the last year. These are all questions that are involved in the meaning making process.
ALISON BEARD: And should we all be looking to work as a place to find meaning as we come out of this crisis?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: I do think that work is a place that many people find meaning and has historically been a place where many people have found meaning in their lives going all the way back to Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, he talked about how all work can be meaningful because it serves a need in the world. And so the United States being a protestant nation, having that legacy of work being meaningful, I think it’s part of our history. And so a lot of people naturally turn to work as a source of meaning in life. I think that that’s a good thing.
I do think that sometimes though, there’s some confusion about what that means that sometimes people think that the only work that can be meaningful is work that gives you a capital P purpose in life, or has a capital C calling relationship to you. And that’s not always the case the research suggests that it’s possible to find meaning in your work, even if you don’t necessarily think that it’s your ultimate source of purpose or passion or calling. And so I think that’s important to remember because it lowers the expectations for how we approach meaning at work because if you think that your work should be, your capital P purpose, your capital C calling, you might be disappointed and feel like it’s not so meaningful if you don’t find that.
And we know from Amy Wrzesniewski’s work, professor at Yale, that only about one third of people actually have a calling orientation towards their work. But I remember her telling me when I was working on my first book, The Power of Meaning, that it’s a mistake to think that you can go out there and turn over a bunch of rocks and eventually discover a job that is a calling for you, is a purpose for you because that’s not going to be the case for everyone but it’s still possible to find meaning in the work that you do by realizing that it does serve some need in the world. That’s why the work exists, that there is an opportunity to connect and contribute to something bigger than yourself in the work that you do, which is the hallmark of meaning.
ALISON BEARD: Give me some examples of ways that people can find meaning in work when it’s not their calling or life’s passion.
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: You know, Amy’s research in collaboration with others, one of the studies that I think most about when I think about this question is of hospital cleaners at a large Midwestern hospital that they studied. And one of them, a woman named Candace, I had a chance to interview her and this is somebody who the majority of her day is spent cleaning up, cleaning bedpans, mopping the floor, things that don’t necessarily scream meaningful work. And yet when I spoke to her about her work and how she thinks about it, she said, my work isn’t about cleaning bedpans and mopping the floor. It’s about healing sick people.
And so she was able to take the specific things that she did and connect them to some larger picture. And that’s really a key part of finding meaning at work is, reframing the tasks, especially the tasks that feel tedious and hard and unpleasant and remembering that they’re all in the service of some larger project. If you’re an accountant or a lawyer, that’s helping your clients in some way, they come to you because they’re stressed out and they have problems to solve, and you’re helping them solve those problems.
And so always trying to figure out whatever it is you’re doing does serve that larger picture. And the people who can do that, the most clearly, and the most frequently throughout the course of their days are the ones who have a stronger sense of meaning in their work. And there’s other research too that shows that if you… Actually, I’ll stop at that and I’ll stop there.
ALISON BEARD: And what about people like many HBR readers and listeners who have always found meaning in work because they equate it with achievement, they’re incredibly ambitious, they want to start companies and lead companies, do you find that those people in this moment as we emerge from COVID-19 are rethinking how they’ve approached work or are they just running full force back into the way it used to be?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: One of the interesting things about the pandemic of course, I mean, one of the tragic things is that so many people who have that entrepreneurial spirit who had ventures that they were hoping to launch in 2020/2021 that their plans fell through and went up in smoke.
I think for a lot of people, that was a moment where they had to sit back and reflect on, okay, where do I find meaning now? And one of the things that I read about in my book, The Power of Meaning, and in other articles is that it’s important to know first of all, that there are many different ways that we can find meaning in life.
And then second of all, to draw on those sources of meaning throughout our lives so that we’re not investing our entire sense of purpose and of who we are into just one domain because if that one domain is taken away from us then we’re in trouble.
And in my book, I write about these four pillars of meaning, is the four most common sources of meaning. I saw people talking about when I interviewed them and I also saw in the research and the first one is belonging. So having relationships where you feel like you matter to others, where you feel like you’re seen. The second is purpose which I put that entrepreneurial, ambitious achievement oriented spirit under. It’s about accomplishing the goals that are most meaningful to you.
The third is storytelling or the narratives that you create around the important moments of your life, especially the important, hard moments of your life, which for a lot of people one of those is the last year and a half. And then finally transcendence or these experiences of on wonder more spiritually balanced experiences that bring us into the present moment and wash away our anxieties and help us gain some perspective on what the world is really about.
And so to the extent that you can build up 2, 3, 4 of those pillars of meaning in your life, the stronger your basis of meaning is because if one of those pillars gets taken away, like if you do lose your job, if you’re in a string in your career where you’re not achieving as much where you are being rejected more and failing more and I think we all go through those moments, then you can turn to your relationships or your spiritual life or reflecting on the story of your life and what you’re going through right now is shaping you into a different person, that will enable you to move forward with more resilience and grow through the experience that’s more difficult.
ALISON BEARD: In this reset moment, how do people figure out whether they really need a fundamental change, a career switch, or just a period of readjustment and tweaking at the margins where they’re just getting back into the swing of things but maybe slightly differently?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: Yeah. So I read a book recently called Ambition by Steven Brams, a psychologist, and he writes about how so many people quit their jobs when all they needed was a three month break from what they were doing. And so I think a lot of times when your situation seems unbearable or really difficult and you’re experiencing burnout, you’re trying to manage kids at home and your work, there is this impulse to make a radical change to your life. And for a lot of people that might be the right thing to do. And I certainly have spoken to people who during the pandemic realized that they were in a job that they hated for many years. And finally the pandemic shook them awake to how they were on the wrong path and so they left that job and went in pursuit of something else.
But for other people that changes might be more smaller and more discreet. And those changes could help them feel more fulfilled without completely upending things. Maybe you don’t necessarily need to completely quit your job but just figure out if there are ways for you to get on projects or shape the tasks that you do to align more with your values and what you believe that your sense of purpose is.
ALISON BEARD: And for those people who are part of what people are calling the “great resignation”, the people who are leaving their old jobs behind, what advice do you have on how to pinpoint what will be fulfilling for them going forward?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: I think it goes back again to self-reflection and trying to understand what is it that you really want from a job. For some people, the job needs to be intrinsically meaningful for them to even consider it. And by that, what I mean is that the work itself has to seem meaningful to them and a good example is zookeepers. There’s this classic study of zookeepers that shows that they have a really strong sense of calling in their work. They go into their profession because from a young age they loved animals, they’re willing to not make as much money as they could given their education because they love the work of caring for animals at zoos so much. And so from a young age, they knew what they wanted to do. They knew they had this passion and love of animals and taking care of animals and they eventually find their way into a career that helps satisfy that need.
So with zookeepers, they’re drawn to their profession because they think that it’s intrinsically meaningful, what they do every single day brings them a sense of meaning in life. I think for other people work isn’t necessarily intrinsically meaningful but can be meaningful in that it allows them to do other things that are important to them, whether it’s supporting their families or supporting hobbies and other passion projects that they’re really interested in. And so I think one thing that people can ask themselves is, well, what does my relationship to work need to be like for me to feel like it’s meaningful or I’m getting what I want out of life.
If you think about meaning not just within work but within the broader perspective of your life, is the work that I’m going to do increase that overall sense of meaning by allowing me to do other things, or is it going to decrease my overall sense of meaning in life because it’s so invasive so much time burning me out so badly that I won’t have time to do those things that I really care about.
But then if your work is intrinsically meaningful, maybe you don’t mind as much if you’re spending long hours at work and it’s taking you away from other things that other people might value more but are less valuable to you. So I think in part, it’s doing that self-reflection to figure out what do I want my relationship to my work to be like and then searching for something that allows you to have that relationship.
ALISON BEARD: Okay. So if I’m a manager who doesn’t want any of my team members to leave their jobs, or someone who just isn’t in a position where they can throw away a high paying career in order to switch to something that feels more fulfilling, how do we create environments where people do derive more meaning from the work that they’re currently in?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: So I think that there are three things that managers can do and they go back to those pillars of meaning that I talked about earlier. I recently came across a study out of Yale showing that emergency department workers during COVID who felt like they were part of a team were less likely to experience burnout. And so that’s a study that’s particularly relevant to what people are going through right now. But I think even outside of a pandemic situation, the feeling of belonging at work, of feeling like you’re part of a team, of, some researchers talk about it, feeling like you have a best friend at work, all of these things are such powerful builders of meaning to the extent that people do feel that sense of belonging at work, they’re more productive and more engaged in their work, less likely to leave, less likely to show absentee behaviors.
And so if managers can create a team-like atmosphere, that sense of belonging, modeling it by really treating everyone on the team with respect and as human beings and not just exhibiting transactional. I think that that’s a really powerful way to help people feel a sense of meaning at work and to create a culture of meaning in the workplace. The other is helping the people you’re managing connect what they’re doing to the larger purpose of the organization.
And a really good example of this is the apparel brand, Life is Good, which I wrote about in my book. And I had a chance to interview a bunch of people at that company. And they told me, and these were people, by the way, it was a receptionist, it was a designer, it was the guy who loads boxes at the warehouse, people at all different levels of the company who told me they feel like the work that they do is so meaningful because the culture at Life is Good, there’s these practices where at company-wide meetings and events the leaders will read letters that people have sent to them about what their message, the Life is Good message means to them and has meant to them.
So some people wrote to the company saying things like, wearing your hat help me get through losing my husband during 911 or help me get through being diagnosed with cancer. So those kinds of things and then the leaders were very deliberate about sharing those kinds of letters and emails and messages with everyone in the company so that everyone in the company could see how the work that they were doing was helping spread the power of optimism, spreading hope to people.
And when I talked to the receptionist, the warehouse worker, the designer, they all told me that, I know that what I’m doing I’m not just answering phones or packing up boxes, but it’s helping to contribute to this larger purpose of helping people find hope, of helping children because one of the things that Life is Good does is support philanthropic efforts for kids. So connecting to the larger purpose is the second thing. And then finally with storytelling, every company or most companies anyways, have some stories, some founding stories, some myth that’s on their website. And that means a lot to whoever was the founder the company and hopefully to the people who are leading the company. And to the extent that managers can make that story everyone’s story, then I think that people will again feel like they’re part of something bigger and what they’re doing, they’re not just coming in to get a paycheck but that they’re part of this larger endeavor, a bigger story that they can contribute to.
ALISON BEARD: And what if you don’t work for as altruistic accompany as Life is Good? How do you make sure that those things are still happening?
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: I think it can be as simple as, let’s say you work at a big law firm or a big consulting firm or something like that, it can be as simple as just giving constructive, positive feedback to somebody when they’re doing a good job, acknowledging the good work that they’re doing. I think a lot of the times there’s this culture where people are just driven to produce as much as possible. The quality of their work especially if they’re producing good work, isn’t acknowledged in any way. They’re not given positive feedback when they’re doing good work.
And it only takes a moment to appreciate what somebody is doing and the contribution that they’re making. And so if managers can do that or instill a culture where that’s being done, I think those are those small moments of belonging where people can really feel seen. And not only that the work that they do matters but that they matter in some way to the larger community of the organization.
So it’s not just Life is Good or hospitals or these places where it might seem it’s easier to find meaning by virtue of working there, every single organization because it’s filled with people, there are opportunities to build relationships for people to come together under the banner of a common story for people to realize that the work that they’re doing does serve some need in the world. And so helping to make foreground those different sources of meaning, I think it will still be valuable to helping employees have a sense of meaning in the work they do.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific, Emily. Well, thank you so much for sharing all these insights with us.
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH: Well, thank you so much for having me, Alison. It was wonderful to be with you.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Emily Esfahani Smith. She’s a journalist and is working on her PhD in clinical psychology. She’s also the author of the book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.