Americans celebrated the first Labor Day in New York City all the way back in 1882. Back then, plane flight was a mere fantasy. Zoom calls would have been considered witchcraft. Today, communication and information are being exchanged at the literal speed of light. Technology evolved to make every day lives easier, yet anxiety and depression are omnipresent. It seems like anyone we talk to is tired, busy, and have limited time for leisure and socializing.
If we look at some numbers, it’s not hard to see why. There are 168 hours in a week. 56 hours goes towards sleeping (112 hours left). Then you account for a standard 40-hour work week (56 hours left). Then account for about 1.5 hours each weekday to get ready for and commute to the workplace (48.5 hours left). Then 32 hours are accounted for by weekdays/offdays (16.5 hours left). This leaves approximately 3.3 hours each weekday left to dedicate to our other responsibilities, priorities, and leisure. For many, these 3.3 hours are spent meeting the needs of children. Also, this time is needed for exercise, shopping for necessities, and taking care of personal and household bills. Whatever little time left is spent in front of screens, mindless television, hyper-stimulating video games, and social media. It’s easy to see how we not only become easily stressed, but how the “grind” yields minimal life satisfaction and maximum existential crisis.
On an individual level, there is not much we can do to escape this pattern and still participate in modern society. Survival in these modern times requires monetary income, which means that to receive monetary income we will need to pick and choose which cog we represent in the machine of civilization. Work as a cog long enough be rewarded with a life of happiness and leisure. This was the mentality of older generations, such as Gen X and baby boomers.
Younger generations have developed a different mindset as it comes to working. One of these mindsets is that is we were to spend all this time at work, we should do something that we find to be purposeful and meaningful. This has lead droves of individuals to college to pursue degrees that speak to their passions (none of which will be identified here for risk of offending some people) which, although interesting and fulfilling, has not translated well to the labor market. People with high aspirations for their educations and career often find themselves in less-than meaningful entry level positions. This has fed into a sense of disillusionment and cynicism for many.
While there has been a huge push to encourage high school grads to look into trade schools (Article: “Why You Should Consider Trade School Instead of College” https://www.thesimpledollar.com/investing/college/why-you-should-consider-trade-school-instead-of-college/), there are still many out there who find little satisfaction in their jobs. Think Loverboy’s 1981 hit single “Work for the Weekend.”
The obvious solution is to apply for new jobs and see where one can get a foot in the door. However, this still comes with its own challenges and obstacles (Article: “Why Is It so Hard to Find a Job?” https://www.topresume.com/career-advice/why-is-it-so-hard-to-find-a-job). Also, this process can also take time to put into place. The next best thing is to make the best of your current situation while still searching and applying for new jobs.
What if one were to suggest that the goal is not to find a job that provides you a sense of purpose and meaning, but to find purpose and meaning in the job that you are already in. Studies have shown that people are more content if they find their job to be valuable and have meaning (Article: “More than job satisfaction” https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/12/job-satisfaction). Often, people say that their purpose in life is to help others. Here’s the secret: any job ultimately benefits another person.
One can make the argument that any job that brings income can benefit someone somewhere. For example, trash collection and waste management are vital to a healthy and functioning society (Article: “Sanitation and Maintenance of Ancient Cities ”https://www.bbcleaningservice.com/sanitation-ancient-cities.html) . Then why do many devalue and look down on these jobs? Each and every job has the purpose of helping others, no matter how mundane or miniscule.
Identify your “why”. Like death and taxes, work cannot be avoided. Other than some exceptions, we all need to do some form of work to survive. One way to start seeing purpose and meaning in your current job is to remind yourself of the why. Why do we choose to go to work? This is where it can be helpful to decide what our values are, i.e. what’s important to us. Yes, we need to put food on the table and roof over out heads, but work also provides us much more than the basics (Article: “Why we work” http://davetgc.com/Why_People_Work.html).
Living in America, especially, there are any higher-level needs that work brings us. For example, work can give us a sense of being in charge and/or control of our lives. This can especially ring true if we don’t feel like we have control in our home environments. Also, work provides us with challenges and a feeling of accomplishment, which are essential for our physical and mental development. For many, work also provides social outlets outside of their communities. There are many more reasons, other than money, why work is essential to us, and it is important to see how work helps us live out our values (Article: “Work is About More Than Money” https://www.cardus.ca/research/work-economics/reports/work-is-about-more-than-money/).
Take pride in your work. Another way to extract purpose and meaning in your job is to take pride in what you do. This is a concept that Jordan Peterson often talks about in his many lectures on self-improvement. Taking pride in what you do means aiming to feel satisfied about your contribution. A job done well brings about feelings of elation and accomplishments. Simply put, we don’t experience these feeling we don’t think we did a thorough and complete job. This opens the door for negative feelings, such as disgust and inadequacy.
There is also a biological reaction to taking pride in your work. The feeling of accomplishment triggers the release of serotonin in the brain and body. Low serotonin if often associated with increased anxiety and depression. Anti-depressants, eg SSRI’s, increase the transmission of serotonin in our brains. Therefore, it can be reasoned that a natural anti-depressant is learning to take pride in your work (Article: “How To Take Pride in Your Work in 7 Steps” https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/take-pride-in-your-work).
Be intentional. Another technique to help us see purpose and meaning in our jobs is to be intentional. Being intentional means to be clear and direct about what you want to achieve in the task you are doing. This is important because being intentional helps us decide what is important to us (ie our values). If you choose to wash dishes, for example, you are sending the message that having clean dishes is important to the life you want to have (Article: “Being Intentional: 6 Ways to Be Intentional Every Day” https://lucemiconsulting.co.uk/be-intentional/).
Being intentional not only applies to our contributions towards something, but it can also apply to how we take care of ourselves. It is important to be intentional about resting if we are to recharge our own energy levels. For example, our phones charge faster when run fewer apps or even turn it off. It is inefficient to both work and rest at the same time. If you are doing work, focus only on doing work. And if you are resting and recharging, focus only on resting and recharging. If you are not actively working or resting, then the other tasks to be intentional about are maintenance. Maintenance of our bodies, our minds (eg skills and education), our tools and needs (eg cars and homes) etc.
Reminding us of our purpose in our current job can help us feel more fulfilled and lessen negative feelings such as inadequacy and insignificance. We can find purpose now by reminding ourselves of the why, taking pride in the work we do, and being intentional with what we want to achieve. Certainly this is much easier said than done, but reflecting on our present circumstances can bring about more positivity in our busy lives.