Throughout history, our sources of purpose have shifted. First, our purpose was simply to survive. Then we built families and embraced religion. But now, we increasingly look to our jobs as a source of meaning.
And who could blame us? Our society idolizes people like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, who romanticize work and tell us to do what we love. But according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, that’s led us to a point where Americans are highly isolated and unhappy.
Looking to our jobs for purpose is risky business, says Jeremy Smith, an expert on purpose and an editor for the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center magazine.
“The problem with finding a sense of purpose in a job is that you can get fired,” Smith says. “It’s really that simple. Most employment is conditional.”
Despite this, members of Generation Y (aka millennials) — now the largest generation in the workforce — look to their jobs for meaning at a higher rate than previous generations, according to Gallup research.
The lines between work and life are getting blurred, explains Nate Dvorak, a researcher for Gallup and an expert on well-being. Millennials increasingly want to work for a company that invests in them as employees and as people, in a holistic sense.
But in most cases, they’re not finding it.
In that context, it’s easy to see the disconnect, or as Smith likes to call it, the “crisis of purpose.”
Aaron Castillo, a content strategist for a marketing company in Florida, exemplifies most of Gallup’s findings to a T. Like most of Gen Y, he struggles to find a sense of purpose in his day job. Most days, he does the number-crunching side of marketing, but he much prefers creative work, especially videography and photography. Those opportunities are few and far between.
How to Find Your Purpose Outside Your Job
An important part of finding a sense of purpose is to diversify your sources. Then, your purpose isn’t attached too heavily on any one thing, especially not a job that is at the whims of the economy or a tyrannical boss.
Dvorak says that jobs are indeed important, but there are several other factors to overall well-being to consider. He warns against putting too much emphasis on one element.
“Well-being is more about life evaluation,” he says. “Not just happiness. Not just satisfaction.”
Gallup defines well-being using these five main factors:
- Purpose (Enjoying what you do every day. Jobs can be a big part of this one.)
- Social (Having supportive and loving relationships.)
- Financial (Managing your money so you can live a less stressful life.)
- Community (Feeling safe and having pride in where you live.)
- Physical (Being healthy and energetic enough to do what you want.)
As you can see, the majority of well-being has little to do with your day job.
Smith notes that we can also tap into “human capacities” to live more meaningful lives — capacities such as social connection, awe, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, mindfulness and empathy.
With both Gallup and the Greater Good Science Center research on the aspects on well-being in mind, there are plenty of practical ways to find a sense of meaning outside the office. Here are a few.
Cultivate Meaningful Relationships
Social well-being is something Americans struggle with. While we have hundreds, if not thousands, of friends on social media, we lack genuine, deep connections with one another.
“By many, many measures,” Smith says, “Americans are more isolated than they have been in the past.”
And he isn’t referring to romantic relationships. This spans the gamut. Friendships, families and partnerships are all areas we need to actively cultivate a more meaningful connection.
Dvorak suggests that the lack of connection could be because millennials are focusing too much on their careers and not enough on friends and family.
“Social well-being is not about a number of friends you have. It’s about the quality of friends you have,” he says.
So the next time you’re socializing, think twice about immediately responding when your phone buzzes. I promise, the notification will be there later.
Volunteer for a Cause You Like
Volunteering is a great way to add fulfillment to your life, and it certainly develops human capacities like compassion and empathy. It also allows you to develop new skills and try new things that have nothing to do with your professional life.
In the Greater Good Science Center’s Greater Good magazine, Smith writes that altruism is one such way to have a greater sense of purpose.
When Castillo reached the point where his job didn’t feel fulfilling, he turned to a local volunteer organization that focused on keeping the Tampa Bay community clean, a cause more personal than professional. Cleaning up beaches helped him find a greater sense of community. And suddenly his world was a little bigger. The boring days at work didn’t mean so much.
But sometimes it’s hard to find time to volunteer.
To combat your scheduling woes, Dvorak proposes “double dipping,” i.e. combining multiple aspects of well-being into one activity. So don’t just volunteer alone. Rally your friends and family to your local food pantry or run a 5K race that raises money for your favorite charity.
Join a Professional Group
Smith makes a clear distinction between your job and your work. Jobs are temporary, he says. Even if you’re lucky enough to have the same one for 40 years, it’s still temporary. But your work is a greater cause.
So if you aren’t happy with your current job, but you do enjoy the sense of work or the field that you’re in, professional groups can be fulfilling on multiple levels.
A nonprofit, professional advertising organization for Gen Y called Ad 2 Tampa Bay helps Castillo balance out those number-crunching days at his marketing job. It allows him to pursue the creative side of advertising, and it sharpened his videography and photography skills.
He was able to bring that fresh set of skills back to his day job and incorporate more creativity at work.
There’s also the hugely important social aspect of professional organizations.
“One of the primary reason for me joining Ad 2 in the first place was because I didn’t know anyone in the field,” Castillo says. “It seemed like a good way to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people and experience new things.”
Start a New Hobby or Nurture a Passion Project
Depending on which hobby or project you choose, you can support several aspects of well-being simultaneously. Hobbies like rock climbing or CrossFit support physical and social well-being for sure, but Smith highly recommends reading and writing.
He notes that social isolation can lead to a lack of meaning, but these solitary activities are big exceptions. They actually increase the human capacities mentioned above.
For example, reading can foster insight and empathy by introducing you to someone you would have never met otherwise. And writing, especially about your own experiences and life, can help you find a sense of meaning.
“Try turning [your life]into a story with a beginning, a middle and an end,” Smith says. “That can allow you to project your story out into the future.”
Reframe Your Mindset About Your Job
If you’re like me, you may put a little too much emphasis on the work category of your overall well-being. Whether you love or hate your job, it’s easy to get caught up in it and have the issues of the day or month or year follow you home.
I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. A bad work environment when I lived in South Korea would have tainted my whole perception of the country if I had let it. On the other hand, there have been instances where I get so amped about a project that I forget to eat dinner. By the time I put my laptop down, it’s bedtime.
Neither example is a good place to be consistently.
To redistribute some of the importance that you place on your job into other areas like physical or social well-being, you can reframe how you view it.
“I think the important thing is not what your external circumstances are, but how you feel about those circumstances,” Smith says, noting that it’s entirely possible to be in prison and have a strong sense of purpose. “As long as you have enough to eat and a roof over your head, there’s hope.”
Similar to writing about your life story, this mindset can help bring a bigger perspective to your life.
“Why do we have jobs? We have jobs so that we can make money and pay the rent and eat,” Smith says. “Unhitch… your self-esteem from your job.”
In other words, view your job as a paycheck that allows you to enjoy the other aspects of your life, not as a main source of fulfillment itself.
Research shows that mindfulness has several benefits. Sometimes those benefits are exaggerated. But we do know that when done properly, mindfulness can help increase your attention, improve your mental health and positively affect your relationships, among several other things.
But Smith warns against “self-destructive” perceptions of mindfulness. For example, some people think that isolating yourself on top of a mountain is a good way to reach enlightenment. But that could actually have negative effects (beyond the dangers of, you know, slipping and falling to certain death).
“Even monks who take a vow of silence for decades have a connection to a monastery,” he says. “That path to enlightenment is oftentimes connected to a larger religious organization.”
As you incorporate some (or none) of these suggestions, it’s important to keep in mind that this list is in no way definitive. These are merely examples of activities to increase your chances of overall well-being.
So get creative and come up with activities of your own that fit your schedule.
“There’s not a certain amount of boxes to check on your road to purpose. People can take many different paths,” Smith says. “The important thing is you’re really listening to your life… listening and responding to it.”