Meaning in Life and in Work

The idea of meaning in life (MIL) is crucial to almost every measure of human well-being or flourishing, yet there is much less consensus over the idea of meaningful work (MW). This chapter reviews different conceptualizations of these ideas.

July 18, 2023
Michael F. Steger

The Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work 

Edited by Ruth Yeoman, Catherine Bailey, Adrian Madden, and Marc Thompson 

Print Publication Date: Jan 2019 

Subject: Business and Management, Organizational Theory and Behaviour 

Online Publication Date: Feb 2019 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198788232.013.12 

Abstract and Keywords 

Work has powerful potential to enrich our lives by providing them with meaning. The idea of meaning in life (MIL) is crucial to almost every measure of human well-being or flourishing, yet there is much less consensus over the idea of meaningful work (MW). Although the two ideas are often used interchangeably, this chapter reviews different conceptualizations of these ideas to see how they are related and takes a “theoretical turn” to consider some shared themes and character strengths, such as “significance,” “coherence,” “transcendence,” “purpose,” and “empathy.” Based on these themes, it proposes two workplace models intended to make it easier for workers to find meaningful pathways in work, and for leaders to create the conditions for the meaningful organization. When these two models work together they can operate to produce social as well as economic value, and personalize work even when faced with dehumanizing effects of robotics. 


To whatever degree people were able to separate work from the rest of their lives in years past, the boundaries are more blurred than ever today. Life is consumed by work, which often must be conducted on weekends, in airports, taxis, and airplanes, in the middle of vacations, over family dinners, and even during the most personal tasks. A 2015 United States survey of people’s time use revealed that from Monday through Friday, the single greatest way in which employed adults spent their time was working. Whereas they spent an average of 2.6 hours each day on leisure and sports, 1.2 hours caring for others, and a single hour eating and drinking, they spent 8.8 hours working (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). In fact, the average American adult spent a full hour more working than engaged in sleep and sleep-related activities each workday. On top of these forty-four hours of working time each week, one-third of those studied also worked on weekends. Undoubtedly, people from other countries work a lot too. Some may work less, and many may work more, but in short, work may be the dominant presence in most working adults’ lives. 

It also is likely that such rough time use studies miss a more insidious conquest of our lives by work, the creeping expectation that we must always be available by email, text, video chat, or conference call. The global nature of business compounds the sense that eventually it will be your turn to join the international conference call or video chat at 5 a.m. on a Saturday. According to a 2012 workforce survey by Kelly Services, a global temporary workforce company, 27 percent of their 170,000 respondents felt pressured to stay connected to work during their off hours, and 32 percent said that mobile technology had contributed to feelings of burnout (Kelly Services, 2012). Work reaches us everywhere, at all times, claiming more and more of our waking (and sometimes sleeping) lives. 

And yet, maybe that is not always a bad thing. As the title of this chapter indicates, work does not have to be energy-sapping drudgery. Work can be a source of excitement, fulfillment, energy, and joy. Work can be meaningful. If work gets more of our lives, then perhaps our response must be to get more out of work. This chapter focuses on the synergy meaning can create between work and life overall. To do so, I will review theory and research on meaning in life and on meaningful work. Finally, I will provide two frameworks to guide individuals on how to find meaningful work, and guide organizational leaders on how to try to create it in their workplace. 

Three Meanings of Meaning 

The notion of meaning as a topic of scholarly interest begins with Viktor Frankl’s interest in meaning as a fundamental human drive. Frankl believed that we all have a will to meaning, a need to find purpose and meaning in our lives. Famously, Frankl (1963) wrote about the power of purpose as he witnessed it among those who survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Having a purpose, a reason to live, or a destiny to fulfill kept people going despite the abuses and horrors of their imprisonment. At the end of the war, Frankl sought to inspire people around the world to seek their own purpose. 

His vision spawned several decades of steady research, the pace and volume of which has accelerated dramatically over the past decade or so. Meaning in life (MIL) has grown from an obscure existential curiosity to a mainstay of health and quality of life research. Hundreds of studies have confirmed and reconfirmed that MIL is closely linked to practically every way of assessing human health and well-being. Just a small sampling reveals that those who report higher levels of MIL experience greater happiness, positive emotions, gratitude, life satisfaction, physical health, and even a longer life, while also experiencing lesser depression, anxiety, hostility, and health complications (for review, see Steger, 2009, 2012).

Originally, Frankl argued that meaning and purpose could be found through three means: acts of creativity, building relationships with others, and cultivating noble attitudes during suffering. Applications of these proposals to our working lives seem pretty straightforward. Create something new or valuable, cultivate authentic relationships, and endure suffering with dignity. More recently, other three-part theories of meaning have focused on what meaning consists of, providing different indications of meaning’s origins. Martela and Steger (2016) reviewed the literature and concluded that meaning in life consists of three main dimensions. The first dimension is coherence, which refers to how people make sense of life and render it comprehensible and understandable. The second dimension is purpose, which refers to people’s possession of a sense of direction and aspiration in life. The third dimension is significance, which refers to people’s convictions that their lives are worthwhile and intrinsically valuable. George and Park (2014) refer to this final dimension as existential mattering and suggest that one way of feeling that one’s life is worthwhile is by making a difference to other people, or otherwise demonstrating that one is relevant and important. 

Thus, meaning in life may be defined as a psychological process that “necessarily involves people feeling that their lives matter, making sense of their lives, and determining a broader purpose for their lives” (Steger, 2012: 177). 

Meaningful Work 

A consensus definition of meaning in life took decades to evolve, and there are still some important variations and unresolved ideas. Theory and research on meaningful work is much younger, and lacks a seminal founding figure like Frankl. However, there are quite a number of efforts toward theory building occurring at the present moment. One approach sought to build a conceptual model based on the development of a new survey tool, the Work as Meaning Inventory (Steger, Dik, and Duffy, 2012). This work identified three dimensions to meaningful work: the work itself seems to have a point or is otherwise meaningful, work contributes to one’s overall life purpose, and work contributes to some good beyond one’s self. A similar approach is offered by Pratt, Pradies, and Lepisto (2013), who propose three orientations to gaining meaning and fulfillment through work. Depending on how they approach their work, people could find meaningfulness through a craftsmanship orientation (which values doing work well for its own sake), a serving orientation (which values work through a drive to help others), or a kinship orientation (which values work that creates bonds among people working together). A major difference between these two approaches is that Steger and colleagues suggest that their three dimensions of MW function together to create a meaningful experience, whereas Pratt and colleagues suggest that any of their three orientations could be sufficient to create a meaningful experience at work. 

Other scholars have proposed dimensional approaches to MW that identify pathways to make work meaningful. Rosso, Dekas, and Wrzesniewski (2010) use the dimensions of Self ←→ Others and Agency ←→ Communion to designate four pathways. Individuation fol­lows from the juncture of Self and Agency, and achieves MW through self-efficacy, control, competence, and self-esteem. Contribution emerges from the juncture of Agency and Other orientation and achieves MW through perceived impact, self-transcendence, and making a difference. Unification combines Other orientation with Communion and achieves MW through shared values, interpersonal connections, and developing shared social identities. Finally, Self-Connection arises from Communion and Self orientations, leading to MW through authenticity and identity affirmation. 

As scholars have noted, “meaning” is made all of the time, and may be rooted in diverse aspects of both work and life (e.g. Heine, Proulx, and Vohs, 2006; Rosso, Dekas, and Wrzesniewski, 2010; Steger 2009). People may vary in how drawn they are to focusing on their selves versus others at work, or by working toward their own agency versus working together in communion with others. Organizations also may differ in the degree to which they create opportunities for—as well as reward or punish—these orientations. This highlights an important distinction that often is made between “meaning” and “meaningful” (or “meaningfulness”). Meaning essentially captures the interpretations and connections people make regarding their experiences, situations, and stimuli they encounter. Such meanings, or interpretations, can be positive (e.g. My employer is great), negative (e.g. My employers are a bunch of corrupt ghouls), or any possible blend (e.g. The company is awful but the people are good). These meanings are the conduit between the organization, its policies, procedures, people, and culture and the experience of meaningful work. The word “meaningful” also could be positive (e.g. Working here makes my life better in profound ways), negative (e.g. Being disrespected every day at work is causing me to destroy my family bonds), and every blend in between (e.g. Work takes away from time with my family but it is so important and needed in the world). However, in both the meaningful work literature and the meaning in life literature, meaning and meaningful are used interchangeably, and both are almost uniformly used to refer to work or a life that is meaningful in positive ways to people, whereas the term “meaningless” is more frequently used to refer to work that has either no meaning or is meaningful in negative ways. For this chapter, convention is followed in that meaning, MW, and meaningful work are used to refer to the positive manifestations of meaning and meaningfulness. 

Because there can be such a profusion and diversity of “meanings”—in the sense of interpretations—that people generate in an organization, it is easy to imagine a mismatch between people and organizations in terms of what organizations intend to provide and what people seek and experience. The models of MW reviewed here essentially argue that these organizational factors and the meanings/interpretations people experience must align in order for MW to occur. By extension, each of these models also recognizes the potential for, and the deleterious consequences of, failures of organizations to provide opportunities for MW for its employees. People prosper if they can find a path to MW, and suffer if that path is blocked. 

As noted, there is quite a bit less research on MW than there is on MIL. However, from the research that has been conducted, meaning seems every bit as important to our work as it is to the rest of our lives. People who have meaningful work are more engaged, experience greater positive emotions, feel they use their psychological strengths more often, and are less often stressed and hostile. In some cases, meaningful work is demonstrated to longitudinally predict other important metrics of work well-being, such as engagement (e.g. Johnson and Jiang, 2017). This set of characteristics likely makes them more enjoyable co-workers and employees, a supposition reflected in research showing that meaningful work is correlated with greater intrinsic motivation, more faith in management, better work team performance, higher supervisor performance ratings, and lower rates of absenteeism and intentions to leave an organization (e.g. Steger, Dik, and Duffy, 2012). 

Working Together—Meaning in Work and in Life 

California’s Silicon Valley has earned a reputation as a hub of innovation … and also ruthless ambition. However, according to one executive who focuses on emerging innovations in this region, even in a powerful world dominated by the digital and the virtual, there is a transcendent theme. I learned about Nina Simosko from a wonderful book on cultivating compassion at work (Worline and Dutton, 2017), in which the following startling statement is quoted: “I’ve come to learn that people come to work searching for purpose and meaning, much as they do in their everyday lives” (Simosko, 2015, emphasis added). It is at once visionary and quaint. Visionary in that even in the high-pressure world where venture capitalists joust with billionaire coders, someone understands that a critical piece sometimes goes missing; quaint in that Simosko speaks of a world in which work is separated from everyday life. 

Empirical Research on Meaning in Life and at Work 

Of course, one way to think about how meaning in life may connect with meaning at work is by examining research that has directly tested the link. Given the close conceptual relationship between the two variables, it should not be surprising that quite a number of studies have tested their empirical relationship as well. Research shows that meaning in life and meaningful work are positively related in a wide range of samples, including university students studied both through self-report surveys and through a workshop specifically designed to increase meaningful work (Steger and Dik, 2009), university employees (Dik et al., 2012; Steger, Dik, and Duffy, 2012), a small sample of doctors in India (Ola, 2016), a sample of professional artists in India (Vidwans and Raghvendra, 2016), and samples of general working adults obtained through internet survey panels (Allan et al., 2016; Allan, Duffy, and Douglass, 2015; Duffy et al., 2013). Research also shows that this link persists over periods of six months among students in their twenties (Praskova, Hood, and Creed, 2014). Not all of these studies employed the strongest research designs, and certainly more investigation is needed, but the consistency of results across different samples is encouraging. When people find work to be meaningful in positive ways, they also find their lives to be meaningful in positive ways. There is one exception to this body of literature, however. One study failed to find any relationship whatsoever between a single item measure of meaningful work (Delle Fave et al., 2011) and a mea sure of purpose in life (Ryff, 1989) among a small sample of workers for two Italian insur ance companies (Bassi et al., 2013). 

Despite this sole exception, meaning in life clearly is connected to meaning at work. However, current empirical research is really only able to scratch the surface of the linkages. between meaning in life and at work because existing measures tend to be rather general rather than multidimensional, and existing studies tend to be snapshots rather than longitudinal investigations. For a deeper understanding, we must turn to theory. 

Theoretical Connections Between Meaning in Life and at Work 

At the broadest level, meaning should work together at the level of life in general and in work because similar mental processes are suspected to work in both venues. After all, if we can seek after or interpret the meaning of a word, an expression, and tragedies with similar intents, then surely we are capable of seeking after and understanding what makes life, and life’s important domains (e.g. work, family, spiritual life, leisure, personal development) meaningful. Some basic meaning-creating capabilities may be applied in each case. If this is true, then an argument can be made that similar approaches should divulge meaning in life and in work. 

On a more formal level, MIL theory asserts that meaning rests in part on significance, coherence, and purpose. At the most basic level, MW scholars argue that people must be able to view their work as having some fundamental point to it, or view it to be worthwhile (Hackman and Oldham, 1976; Steger, Dik, and Duffy, 2012). This clearly parallels the significance dimension of MIL theory. Some MW scholarship suggests that people use work to better understand their selves and their lives (Rosso, Dekas, and Wrzesniewski, 2010; Steger, Dik, and Duffy, 2012). Further, some work identification scholarship also suggests that people understand themselves to some degree through work and their occupational or vocational organization. For example, Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley (2008) give this process a central position in their conceptualization of organizational identification: “It is identification in this deeper, more existential sense that this article focuses on precisely because it more fully implicates the self in the experience of organizational life”. The field of sense-making also directly addresses people’s efforts to comprehend and understand their work environments (Weick, 1995). Thus there are clear links between MW and the MIL dimension of coherence. Finally, purpose is considered to enact meaning and translate it into an imperative for people to actually do something meaningful and impactful. MW models reserve an important spot for doing important or significant things, which could be expressed through service to some greater good or effort put toward one’s own purpose. In sum, there are many reasons to suspect that MIL and MW may work together, perhaps providing reciprocal benefits. 

Other themes can be drawn from the MIL and MW theories reviewed here: self-knowledge, authenticity, effective action in the world, self-transcendence, wisdom, ethics, and overarching purpose. Figure 12.1 attempts to show how both MIL and MW have links to these shared themes. It is a bit messy, but it displays convergence that could be used to inform strategies for building meaning at individual and organizational levels, whether the organization is a huge company or a small work team. For example, if a team lacks direction and seems to spin its wheels in unproductive meetings, having a clearer or more readily implemented purpose or mission should help. Figure 12.1 suggests that pur pose might be enhanced by coaching individual members of the work team to discern their own life purposes and seek ways to service those purposes through work responsibilities and tasks. Alternatively, from the meaningful work side, a leader could help team members determine ways to facilitate working toward some greater good or creating paths toward contribution, which in turn ought to infuse a more salient sense of purpose to the team.

Certainly, this is a preliminary effort to draw direct links between meaning in life and meaningful work, and in addition to being aesthetically iffy, several key iterative processes are neglected. For example, one of the insights generated in MIL theory is that understanding ourselves provides us with the basis for understanding how we are different from other people, enabling us to relate to them more deeply while still engaging empathically (and hopefully nonjudgmentally). For example, if I understand that I work best under tight deadlines with high-pressure motivational tactics, it makes it easier for me to realize that this preference is specific to me, rather than “people,” preparing me for better-developed motivational strategies for those I am leading. In Figure 12.1, there should be some indication of how particular concepts interact with, support, or lead to each other. It may be important to understand how these interactions unfold both within MIL or MW, and also across MIL to MW and vice versa. Using this same example, the feedforward of self-understanding to empathic understanding of others is particularly applicable in the workplace, where the most effective people are able to identify how they can apply their strengths and also work to bring out the strengths of others as well as of teams and groups.


Perhaps in no other domain does meaning confront the necessity of being practical more than in the work domain. Work is about applying effort to specific tasks and contexts. To make it easier to apply meaning to work, I proposed two mnemonic models: SPIRE and CARMA (Steger, 2017). Both of these models draw on psychological research to identify high-value levers for encouraging and enacting meaningful work. SPIRE is intended to provide individuals with some direction on finding their own paths to meaningful work, and CARMA is intended to provide leadership and management with some guidelines for creating an occupational ecosystem that can nurture meaningful work. Figure 12.2 provides a summary of these two models. 

SPIRE stands for Strengths, Personalization, Integration, Resonance, and Expansion. Strengths emphasizes that people who are able to use their character strengths at work report higher levels of meaning and engagement (e.g. Littman-Ovadia and Steger, 2010). Personalization highlights the role of finding work that expresses important parts of ourselves (e.g. Dobrow and Tosti-Kharas, 2011). Integration refers to the relationship that exists between meaning in work and meaning in life, suggesting that people are best) able to find meaningful work when it harmonizes with their values and meaning outside of work (e.g. Hoffman et al., 2011). Resonance points to the important role that leadership and organizational mission play in supporting the perception of workers that their effort is valuable and supports a worthwhile cause (e.g. Nielsen and Randall, 2009; Steger, Dik, and Duffy, 2012). Research demonstrating that people’s nostalgia for their employing organization fosters meaningful work (Leunissen et al., 2018) supports SPIRE in general, but in particular the middle elements of Personalization, Integration, and Res­onance, because these capture the degree to which people embrace their workplace and link it to durably important matters in their lives as a whole. Expansion captures people’s desires for their work to make a positive difference to some cause or entity beyond their selves. Aside from the large amount of research on prosocial behavior and the need to be long to positive relationships, more work-specific sources of evidence for Expansion include positive relations between perceived societal appreciation for and benefit from one’s work and measures of meaningful work (Jung and Heppner, 2017). 

The CARMA model was developed to provide leaders with a loose blueprint for creating an organization that can better create meaningful work. CARMA is intended to remind leaders that you reap what you sow. CARMA stands for Clarity, Authenticity, Respect, Mattering, and Autonomy. Clarity stresses the importance to employee meaningful work of setting a clear expression of mission, purpose, and direction for an organization. Visionary leaders, such as those referred to as transformational leaders, foster meaningful work among those inspired to follow them (e.g. Judge and Piccolo, 2004). Authenticity refers to the necessity for leaders to behave in an authentic, ethical manner to avoid cynicism. The path from Authenticity to meaningful work is supported by several studies on leadership, but most closely by research linking beneficial work outcomes to the capacity for ethical leadership to create meaningful work (Demirtas et al., 2017). Respect is the basic foundation for positive relationships at work, supporting people in feeling connected and valued at their organization (e.g. Tummers and Knies, 2013). Putting these first three elements together gives the impression that leaders must value those who follow them, demonstrate that important things are being pursued at the organization, and show that it is not just empty talk. One line of research that supports this claim focuses on corporate social responsibility campaigns. Such campaigns appear to create meaningful work for employees, which in turn boosts their levels of well-being (Leal, Rego, and Cun ha, 2015). Mattering targets the most basic notion of what makes work meaningful, that a worker can see how her or his labor leads to an outcome that is noticed and useful in the organization. In support of mattering, employees who feel more central to an organization’s functions report greater levels of meaningful work (Jiang, Tripp, and Prob st, 2017). Finally, Autonomy reflects the central importance to meaningful work of being able to exercise volition and judgment in one’s work and life (e.g. Ryan and Deci, 2001; Rodell, 2013). 

In an ideal setting, SPIRE and CARMA work together. Individual workers strive to maximize attention to the elements of SPIRE while keeping note of how well their organization, leaders, and managers are providing the elements of CARMA. Leaders and managers may use the elements of CARMA to maintain consistent nourishment of meaningful work in their organizations and the elements of SPIRE to assess how well they are doing. Of course, leaders and managers also benefit from meaningful work, so the two models together remind them to tend to meaningful work both for their followers and also for themselves.

Meaning and the Future of Work 

Currently, work seems to be described as a battle. Workers of one country have their jobs taken by those of another, humans fight algorithms and robots for their jobs, sectors disappear, small companies are swallowed up by bigger ones, and online sellers rob every one of local jobs and tax revenue. When work is primarily about acquiring wealth, economic security, or material possessions, then all of the incentives line up to create, move, and destroy work, workers, and workers’ rights whenever there is an advantage to be had. However, there is an alternative future out there, one in which work is not only there to capture economic leverage, but instead work is there to provide psychological and social goods, well-being, and lives worth living. Work can be the way in which people feel they fulfill their purpose in life. 

It is possible that, to some extent, parts of this future are inevitable. Our organizations will want or need to do more to offer meaningful work. Doing so provides competitive advantages (through employer of choice status) and cost advantages (through lower health care and replacement costs). Organizations increasingly are expected to reflect social values in order to attract and keep talent. One example is the uproar in the United States over how companies should or should not have responded to a 2017 Executive Order by the President that banned travel to the US by citizens of a small number of countries. Customers and advertisers were joined by employees in pressing companies to generate a response. To some degree, this may reflect frustrated people’s tendencies to work with whatever tool is at hand, but I think it is more likely that people want to feel that their employer is worth investing their very best effort in. 

The SPIRE and CARMA models help support this idea. People seem to experience work to be meaningful when they are able to Personalize their work, Integrate it into their overall life meaning, and Resonate with their organization’s mission (“sPIRe”). Employees therefore might be expected to look to their organization’s public behavior as signals of what it stands for and how warmly employees’ values, meaning, and purpose are likely to be re spected and nurtured. Likewise, the public behavior of companies can be seen as demonstrating corporate values and vision, which might contradict the Clarity leaders have provided their workforce, calling into question the Authenticity of leadership overall, and raising doubts about whether employees’ effort Matters in a company that fails to project itself into the broader public sphere (“CArMa”). For today’s workers, the way in which organizations rise to the challenge—or bungle the opportunity—of political, social, and environmental issues may strengthen, or perhaps sever, pathways to meaningful work.  Meaningful work is work that people gladly, gratefully, and energetically give their best selves and effort to. Meaningful work creates a workforce of brand ambassadors, living symbols of how great working for a company can be. It has been exciting watching meaningful work grow from being an interesting idea to being a viable and vigorous area of research. As this research increasingly supplies organizations with paths to meaningful work, we will reap the benefits of greater meaning. In life and in work.


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