A classic parable, told over many years in various adaptions, begins with the story of three people building a church. The first person, when asked by a passer-by what they are doing, replies that they are laying bricks. The second person responds that they are building a wall. The third person enthusiastically shares to the passer-by that they are building a cathedral for God.

Regardless of what you value most (whether that be your religion, your whānau, your mahi or anything else), understanding the purpose of what you are doing, and connecting it to what you value, helps to give your life meaning. And this sense of meaning and purpose, in turn, boosts your wellbeing.

From running our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment with many thousands of employed New Zealanders, we know that approximately 1 in 4 people experience high levels of wellbeing (i.e., they are Thriving), just over half of people are experiencing OK levels of wellbeing, and 1 in 5 people are finding it tough with low levels of wellbeing.

For those that are finding it tough, the top contributors to poor wellbeing and psychological distress are usually non-work related – including family problems, financial difficulties, and relationship stress. However, work challenges also play a role. Regardless of whether poor wellbeing is due to work or non-work factors, the meaning we find in life can help us to make sense of whatever it is we are struggling with. It can act as a buffer, protecting us against the worst effects of life’s hardships.

Meaning and purpose buffers stress

Encouragingly, more than three quarters of New Zealanders (80%) that we have surveyed agree that the priorities in their life are in line with their values, meaning that the way they spend their time and energy generally reflects what they care most about. For many people, this may mean that they prioritise their family, and quality family time, as one of their key values, for example.

However, by comparison, only 60% of working Kiwis that we surveyed agree that their work helps to fulfil their sense of purpose in life.

Fulfilling one’s sense of life purpose at work is significantly associated with higher wellbeing, satisfaction with life, and satisfaction with life balance in our dataset. It’s also associated with lower psychological distress and a lower likelihood of leaving one’s job in the next six months. In a fascinating study that tracked North American adults over time, stronger life purpose was also associated with decreased mortality. 

Interestingly, in our dataset, people leaders are more likely to report a sense of purpose at work compared to their team members, as are older employees compared to younger employees. This suggests that the more embedded we are within our organisation, the more we contribute to its strategic goals, or the more time we have spent working, the more likely we are to be working in an area that we find meaningful and purposeful. 

In lieu of waiting until we are older, vying for a promotion, or immediately seeking out a new job, there are steps we can take to engage with our meaning and purpose where we are and with what we’ve got.

Do more of what you love

For those employees that come from a not-for-profit or social enterprise background, this one might seem intuitive. We feel good when we do work that is meaningful. But it’s worth checking in on how much of your day-to-day work gives you that sense of purpose. 

In a study of nearly 500 doctors at a North American medical centre, researchers found that the amount of time physicians spent engaged in meaningful activities at work was the strongest predictor of burnout, more so than total hours worked and age. 

People that spent less than 20% of their time engaged in personally meaningful work were much more likely to be experiencing burnout (54%) compared with those who spent more than 20% of their time engaged in meaningful work (30%).

So, how do we shift the dial towards doing more of what we find meaningful at work? How do we find that sweet spot of meaning and purpose at work for the sake of our wellbeing? 

If you’ve got it, maintain it

By this point in the article, you’ll probably have a good gut feel for whether your work helps you to fulfil your sense of purpose, or not. If it does, like it does the 60% of employees we’ve surveyed, that’s great. A strengths-based approach to wellbeing means that the best thing we can do for ourselves is recognise, protect and celebrate the parts of our lives that are going well.

It’s easy to slip away from the work we find meaningful when work gets busy and emails pick up. If you’ve got a great sense of meaning and purpose from your work already, take note of where you get it from and continue to guard those activities fiercely. 

Shifting the dial on meaning and purpose 

If we’re struggling with meaning and purpose at work, it can be useful to check in with what we value most, and what we’re good at. One of the best scientifically backed resources for doing this is the VIA Character Strengths Survey which you can complete for free online. Once you’re clear on what you value, look for novel ways to do more of this in your job.

This doesn’t need to look like a complete role overhaul; it might be as simple as recognising that relationship-building is important to you, yet you currently interact with the same three people every day. See if there’s a project you can jump on that introduces you to new people. And then, track to see how you feel when you make that change. Better, worse, or no difference? It’s okay to go back to the drawing board and try again with a different strategy.