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Making Work Meaningful: 3 Steps from Psychology and Theology to Kickstart Meaning in Your Work

Bryan Dik

How is your work redemptive?

Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology, Colorado State University
September 9, 2015

Several years ago I became good friends with a guy who remodeled houses. He worked a lot of small jobs, often bathroom makeovers, and he was passionate about what he did. He never cut corners, and he often added “extras” even when they would likely go unnoticed. He was a devout Christian who took pride in running an ethically grounded business, and he looked for opportunities to talk about his faith with his customers. Beyond all that, he made a point of donating usable lumber, fixtures, and furniture that he removed in various projects to people or organizations who needed those things. This was extra work, but he figured it was a way to help those without many resources, while also reducing the waste that would end up in a landfill.

“In the end, living a calling is more about your approach to your work than it is about the specific job in which you land.”

What Christians Need to Learn about the Social Science of Integrating Faith and Work

I admired my friend’s approach, and I noticed how much he loved his job. I also noticed that his experience fit hand-in-glove with what social science research tells us about what makes work meaningful. Christians have a lot to learn from this, because we don’t always approach our work in a very integrated way.

For example, I attended a conference once that included a breakout discussion for Christian professionals interested in “fusing faith and life” in their jobs. When the moderator asked for examples of this kind of “fusion” looked like, the room went silent. Eventually someone suggested asking employers for time off to go on short-term mission trips. Someone else mentioned looking for opportunities to share the Gospel with co-workers. Now, don’t get me wrong—I will be the first to say that missions are extremely important, and we are called to bear witness wherever we are. No question. Still, are these two directives all that fusing faith and work boils down to? To my remodeler friend, the answer was clearly no.

In light of what we can learn from both Scripture and psychological science, I think he was correct. In an earlier post, I described some ways that Christians can lean on both scripture and vocational psychology to discern a calling. Certainly, a big part of serving God at work is identifying a career path to which we feel called. Yet the process doesn’t end there. In fact, that’s just the beginning.

In this post, I address the question: What things should we do to make our work meaningful?

Key Factors for Finding Meaning in Work

Some people will tell you that some jobs are more meaningful than others, so start by finding a meaningful job. There is some truth to this. In general, research suggests that when jobs provide the following benefits or opportunities, people find it easier to experience meaning:

  • Autonomy, i.e., the freedom to try out your own ideas.
  • A chance to use your skills.
  • A sense of how your work contributes to a tangible product or service you can identify.
  • Co-workers who enjoy and value their work, and with whom you get along.
  • A leader who sets a clear vision that you value, who lives out that vision, who expresses genuine concern about you, who encourages you to take risks and solve problems creatively, who gives you confidence, and who expands your goals.
  • An organizational mission that fits with what you value.

If you have a job that provides all or most of these things, count yourself privileged. If you have a chance to move into a position that gets you closer to this, you should seriously consider taking it. But for many people, simply finding a better job is not a realistic option. Furthermore, lots of people spend their careers job-hopping in search of the perfect position that likely doesn’t exist.

 3 Practical Steps to Find Meaning in Your Work, Based in the Psychology and Theology of Vocation

In the end, living a calling is more about your approach to your work than it is about the specific job in which you land. With this in mind, to experience a greater sense of meaning in your work, devote the matter to prayer—then try to implement the following practices.

1. Use your strengths.

A good strategy for deriving meaning is to find or create ways to use your strengths. Of course, it’s helpful to know what your strengths are before trying to use them more. Formal assessments are useful for this, but a good informal strategy is to think carefully about a recent situation in which your strengths were on display. Try this. Start by identifying a specific event within the last few weeks in which you felt you were clearly at your best. Got it? New replay the event in your mind a few times, focusing carefully on the details of what happened. In a journal, write out answers to these questions:

  • Using a step-by-step account, how did the events of the situation unfold?
  • What things did you do really well? Be specific.
  • What was the outcome?
  • What specific personal strengths did you show in this situation? List as many as you can. Number them.
  • Circle or highlight the top three. In which other situations have you observed these strengths?

Once you have these top 3 strengths, try an experiment. Make a deliberate effort to use these strengths more often, and in new ways, in your job every day for the next week.

As you do this, pay attention: What do you notice or experience? In what ways has using your strengths changed the way you feel about your work? Research in positive psychology by Martin Seligman and colleagues found that adults who engaged in this simple exercise experienced more happiness and less depression than did those in a control group. Not only do you benefit when you are using your strengths, but God—who entrusted you with them, after all—is glorified when those strengths are expressed in a manner that honors him.

2. Invest in relationships.

Available evidence suggests that our experience of our co-workers can have a big impact on how satisfied we are at work. This means that the reverse is also true—the people we work with experience us in a way that impacts their well-being, in one direction or the other. This is why investing in workplace relationships is a key pathway for fostering meaning.

Get to know the people you work with. Invite them to lunch. Ask them about their kids, their goals, the things they like most about the job. Find out when their birthdays are and give them a card when the day arrives. Tell them what you appreciate about them. Then consider ways that you can be helpful. Take ten minutes before your next work week to map out your schedule, and identify things you can do within it each day to make life easier for the people you work with. They don’t have to be painful. Stay an extra hour so your shift manager can go to her son’s baseball game. Talk to your boss about something that someone else did well, and make sure it’s recognized.

Don’t just think about these things—do them. Practice being a mentor, a model of the kind of co-worker you’d most like to have. Do these things without expecting or desiring anything in return (even though some level of reciprocation is likely.) Scores of research on altruistic behavior suggests that doing such things not only benefit those on the receiving end, they make life richer for you, too. More than that, such behavior is virtuous; do it because it’s the right thing to do. The deepened sense of meaning that results is simply a welcome consequence.

3. Think redemptively.

Research suggests that one of the primary ways that people make meaning is by translating their global “meaning frameworks” into their day-to-day experience. People of faith are especially inclined to connect their daily experience to their broader framework of meaning, and a sense of calling helps us do this in the work domain. Christians point to the grand narrative of Scripture as the basis of God’s story, into which we each can fit our stories.

That grand narrative describes the course of history like a play unfolding in four acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. In the beginning, all things God created were “very good” (creation). Genesis teaches that even before sin entered the world, people were given the responsibility to manage God’s creation (1:28). This job became difficult after sin distorted creation, rendering it tainted, twisted, and otherwise not the way God meant it to be (fall). Yet Christ’s death and resurrection were redemptive acts that not only restored people’s relationships with God, but reconciled “all things” to him (Col. 1:20; redemption). This guarantees the whole creation will be made new one day, healed fully from the effects of sin (restoration).

Where do we fit into this? Christ is the reconciler of all things, but we have been called to “the ministry of reconciliation” on Christ’s behalf (2 Cor. 5:18). In the words of Al Wolters:

If Christ is the reconciler of all things, and if we have been entrusted with ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ on his behalf, then we have a redemptive task wherever our vocation places us in his world.

In other words, our responsibility goes beyond managing creation, and now includes partnering with Christ in his work of redeeming things, certainly including our spheres of influence at the workplace.

Are you a farmer? Use the technology available to help feed a hungry world. Are you a lawyer? Seek justice where there is injustice. Are you a scientist? Help the world learn about God by discovering new things about his general revelation. Are you a custodian? Maintain standards for cleanliness and order that promote health and well-being. Whatever your job, think redemptively about what you are doing. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningful approach to work.

9 Questions to Ask Yourself about Meaning in Work

1. When do you feel like your work is particularly meaningful? Explain.

2. What messages did you learn from your parents about what work means?

3. When you are at your best at work, what strengths are on display?

4. What specific things can you do this week to use your strengths more often?

5. Imagine you did and your co-workers came to your funeral. Would they be surprised by what they would learn about you? Explain.

6. If someone asked your co-workers to describe what it’s like to work with you, what would they say?

7. In an ultimate sense, what does your work really accomplish?

8. How does your work fit within the creation, fall, redemption, restoration narrative, exactly?

9. What does it mean to “think redemptively” about your work? Be as specific as you can.

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