Why Meaning is Key to a Satisfying Career
Written by Russell Johnson
It’s an unsettling fact that in advanced English-speaking countries such as Australia and the US, the scourge of depression is far more prevalent than in most nations. In a recent review, only six of the world’s 195 nations suffered higher levels of depression than the US. And only nine had higher levels than Australia.
In fact, all of the English-speaking nations ranked poorly in regard to depression, and in regard to alcohol and drug use disorders as well.
Why is this, when it’s much easier to make a living in these societies than in most of the world?
Are Modern Careers Undermining Wellbeing?
While most people are never diagnosed with depression, other issues also prevalent in our societies provide a fertile breeding ground from which it can spring. The vastly larger epidemic of career dissatisfaction is one such breeding ground.
It’s not just a coincidence that in a recent study of workforce happiness covering 57 developed countries, no English-speaking nation was ranked even in the Top 20. Canada did best, at 23rd. Australia was ranked 24th, the UK was 35th, and the US came in at 36th.
Even when it never progresses to anything more severe, the affliction of career dissatisfaction is by no means benign. All too often, it results in a sort of comfortable numbness that drains the joy from living and predisposes people to other health problems, both physical and mental.
The Paradox of Prosperity
Our evolutionary heritage is mostly one of survival in an ongoing struggle for the necessities of life. It’s important to know that we’re hardwired for a certain level of struggle. In its absence, we don’t flourish.
Modern civilization has given most of us remarkably comfortable lives by comparison with those living in previous times. But in this situation, the striving we experience in the world of work becomes more critical to our mental health.
We still need a deeply valid reason to strive and overcome challenges. If our work feels essentially without meaning, it will affect us negatively.
What Have We Been Failing to See?
The risks of career dissatisfaction, and the solution, were set out decades ago by Dr Viktor Frankl. This remarkable man was a neurologist, a psychiatrist, the founder of a School of Psychotherapy known as logotherapy, the author of thirty-nine books including the inspiring ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ – and a survivor of concentration camps including Auschwitz.
Frankl lost every member of his family except his sister (who had emigrated to Australia) in the Holocaust. Yet he remained unembittered.
The profound lessons he learned and passed on are relevant for us all.
In the Preface to Man’s Search for Meaning, he advised “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself”.
Frankl also noted that “Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them. This is also true of the crises of pensioners and aging people”.
We only need to understand the principle that nature abhors a vacuum to recognize that an existential vacuum is going to be filled in some way. As Frankl pointed out, if it’s not filled in the right way, it will always be harmful.
What if Your Career Has Suffered a Major Setback?
Any of us can suffer a major career setback. It can be shattering. However, like the phoenix, we can rise from the ashes to fulfil the destiny we have chosen for ourselves.
As Steve Jobs stated in his famous Stanford address, regarding his experience of being fired from his job as CEO of Apple, the company he founded:
“What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating…
But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me”.
In Work, Motivated Striving is Key to Thriving
The answers to career dissatisfaction usually lie closer than we realize. If you are dissatisfied with your career, it’s vital to pinpoint what is most fundamentally lacking and to take action at that level. This is the level that Frankl identified – the level of meaning.
If we fail to act at that level and to find a path that inspires us to strive, we will only be able to focus on symptoms. We must address their source instead. A meaningful career can only result from finding and following a path that matters deeply to you.
This path is the level of self-actualization. As Jobs went on to say in his Stanford address:
“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.
If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.
So keep looking until you find it.
What Does it Take to Find Such a Career Path?
Resolving the problem of an unsatisfying career is likely to be a challenging exercise. Unless you’re seeking an entry level position and are young enough to be considered credible at that level in your discipline of choice, you’ll need to be empowered enough both to find it AND to market your transferable skills effectively.
However, the fact is that we are wired for this kind of challenge. And for all of us whose careers have lost – or have never held – the fascination that makes work stimulating and life-enhancing, a beautiful prize awaits us. The rewards of finding or regaining that absorption can make this project one of the most worthwhile you will ever undertake.
We are not built to spend life in a state of comfortable numbness. If you’re keen, through your career, to make the transition to life as you know it should be, then please look for my next article on this subject. In it, I’ll expand on how to achieve this outcome.