How do I know that meaningful work contributes to life satisfaction? It would be easy enough to make a fairly long list of people I know who probably get a great deal of satisfaction from their work. I expect many readers could make similar lists. There is also some research evidence on this question.
It is well known that unemployed people tend to have much lower levels of life satisfaction than people in other workforce categories (including those who have retired). The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index indicates, however, that unemployed people also tend to have much lower levels of satisfaction with what they are achieving in life. There is also a marked difference in satisfaction with ‘achieving in life’ between employed people who are looking for alternative work and those not looking for work. Robert Cummins et al, authors of the report, suggest that low satisfaction with what they are achieving in life may be one of the main reasons why people seek to change their employment. The authors add: ‘Many employed people gain a great sense of ‘purpose in life’ from their employment, and having a sense of purpose is central to wellbeing’ (See: Report 17, April 2007, p. 164-5 and Figures 8.9 and 8.18).
Research on the relative contributions to life satisfaction of orientations to pleasure, engagement (the psychological state that accompanies highly engaging activities) and meaning (pursuit of a meaningful life) is also relevant. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park and Martin Seligman have found (using data from an internet survey) that orientations to engagement and meaning have a greater impact on life satisfaction than does pleasure. The authors also found somewhat higher life satisfaction scores for respondents simultaneously near the top of all three orientations and notably lower scores for respondents simultaneously near the bottom of all three orientations (‘Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2005).
A short article by Amanda Horne on the ‘Positive Psychology News Daily’ site refers to research by Michael Steger and Bryan Dik which suggests that meaningful work is associated with people developing a sense of identity which comes from knowing ‘who they are, how their world works and how they fit in with and related to the life around them’ and ‘people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particularly highly valued, over-arching life goals’ (Chapter on finding meaning at work in Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work).
One of the points emphasised by Peter Warr, the author of extensive research on happiness in the workplace, is whether individuals want to be in the role they have been assigned, the value to them of different role characteristics and the attractiveness of core tasks. He suggests that such matters can have major implications for individual happiness. Warr also notes:
‘Some happiness is not actually accompanied by feelings of pleasure, or satisfaction of desires. This second form of happiness invokes reference standards of some kind, perhaps some realization of personal potential’ (‘Searching for happiness at work’, The Psychologist, Dec. 2007).
Some people might wonder why people who claim to get a great sense of achievement from their work often require high levels of remuneration for their services. I think this might have a lot to do with rationing of their time. Successful actors, sporting professionals, business leaders, artists etc. can be fairly sure that by requiring high levels of remuneration their services will be purchased by people who will appreciate them. They also know that can always give their wealth away if they feel embarrassed by the amount they are accumulating for doing things they might be happy doing for nothing.
Consideration of the way high-achievers allocate their time raises some obvious questions about the importance to life satisfaction of an appropriate balance between work and home life and between different domains such as ‘achieving in life’ and ‘personal relationships’. That might be a good subject for a later post.