By Margaret Steen
Mention "meaningful work," and many people imagine working at a homeless shelter or on research that could lead to a cure for cancer.
But most of us work for companies whose ultimate goal is to make money, even if they do make products or have programs that help people. And even in organizations with the loftiest goals, there are employees who work primarily on mundane tasks.
If you're doing a humdrum sort of job at a typical for-profit company, is it possible for your work to be "meaningful"? Experts say it absolutely is -- though you may have to redefine that word.
Mark Guterman, principal of MeaningfulCareers.com, explains that what makes a job personally satisfying and rewarding is not necessarily its philanthropic aspect. "Each one of us creates our own definition of a meaningful career," he says "Moving toward that definition -- that's what creates meaning." For example, a parent may find meaning in any job that allows her to save for her children's college education.
Sometimes people change careers to find deeper meaning or gratification in their work. But you probably don't have to do anything that drastic. Experts offer these tips for finding -- or creating -- meaning in the job you have:
Figure Out What You Want from Work
What makes you happy to go to work in the morning? Some people who have successful business careers find meaning in leadership. Others may be motivated by money or status.
"We have a society that judges that if you do well, you can't possibly have meaning," Guterman says. But if it's important to you, it can create meaning in your work.
And when you figure out what you want from work, make sure to recognize when you receive it.
Take the Initiative
If environmental issues are your passion, can you add them to your work, even if it's outside of your official responsibilities? For instance, perhaps you could set up a recycling program for your company, suggests career expert and strategist Mary Jeanne Vincent. Or maybe you could automate some processes so your company can save paper.
Remember Why You're Working
Perhaps your definition of "meaning" is as simple as providing for your family -- if that's the case, focus on that goal. This "eye on the prize" can help make even the most mundane work seem important, Vincent says.
Change Your Attitude, Not Your Job
"A lot of people think there has to be a perfect fit" between their values and their jobs, Guterman says. But "changing jobs or changing careers is a big deal for most people." Instead of leaving a job that doesn't seem meaningful, try to identify the personally enriching things you can get from it -- for instance, opportunities to learn new things, travel or work with people who inspire you.
Look Outside of Work for Meaning
If you truly can't make your work meaningful, try finding meaningful volunteer work or hobbies. "There is a whole group of people who never get paid to do work that's really meaningful, but they can bring meaning into their lives otherwise," Vincent says. Spending an hour a week on an artistic endeavor, for instance, can make spending time on unfulfilling work tasks more palatable.
Keep Your Options Open
Your interests may change over time. What's meaningful when you're raising your children may change once those children are grown, for instance. "This is a lifelong process," Guterman says.
And keep in mind that the answer to the question, "Is this particular job meaningful?" is usually not as simple as yes or no.
"People think it's got to be meaningful or it's not, but it's not that pure," Guterman says. "Meaning doesn't come in the answer. Meaning comes in the process."