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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

3 Ways to Create Meaning at a Job You Hate

If you read one more article on happiness in the workplace, you’re going to lose it.

For you, it’s different. You need to continue in your current job because your spouse is still in school, you’re building the skills you need to move to the next level, or you want to make a dent in that mountainous student loan debt. Eventually, you’ll start searching for a job you love—but right now, you’re stuck.

For now, getting through each day is a battle: work that isn’t interesting, co-workers who make you batty, a boss who doesn’t seem to have a clue how to manage people. All this advice about being happy at work seems like a big fat pile of bull hockey that simply doesn’t apply to you.

Sound familiar?

If so, I have some good news. Yes, happiness is one form of life satisfaction—but finding meaning is another.

Sometimes, we assume that finding meaning is all about saving the world, feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless. But it’s not limited to that. Psychologist Todd Hall defines meaningful work as “work that contributes to the well-being of others in a way that uniquely expresses and defines who we are.”

Here are some ways to find that meaning in your work—even if you think your job is a soul-sucking black hole of boredom.

1. Know Your Why

No matter your situation, you’re at your current job for a reason. Maybe you need the income to save for a house for your growing family, or maybe there’s an illness in your family and you absolutely must have the medical coverage that job provides.

And there’s beauty in that: That means while you’re at work, you’re contributing to the well-being of others. Your commitment to accomplishing those financial goals, supporting your family, or enabling that medical care is vital to your life and the lives of the people you care about.

You may not be absolutely delighted at work every day, but that doesn’t mean there’s no higher purpose in what you’re doing. In fact, researchers have identified that deeply meaningful lives can also be characterized by stress, struggle, and challenges.

So, take a moment to jot down all the reasons why you work. On those days when you get down about your job situation, reflect on your deeper purpose for being there.

2. Express Your Human Goodness

“Character strengths” are virtues, such as creativity, honesty, kindness, social intelligence, or gratitude, that allow you to express goodness and help yourself and others. Finding and expressing your unique character strengths can fill your life with more meaning and satisfaction.

If you’re not sure what your character strengths are, take this quick survey to discover them. Then, focus on learning how to use your strengths to inspire and encourage those around you.

For example, if one of your top character strengths is kindness, you can bring that to your workplace by, say, performing one random act of kindness each day. Bring your co-worker an unexpected coffee, for example, or share some bakery treats with your team.

By doing this, you’ll find meaning from an intrinsic perspective—in other words, from what’s already inside of you—rather than expecting your job to create and deliver a sense of happiness to you from the outside.

3. Connect the Dots

When you’re in a job that you don’t enjoy, you probably find the situation absolutely infuriating—why are you stuck in this mess?

But instead of dwelling on the frustration of the current situation, find meaning by connecting your past, present, and future.

Reflect on a past situation that was difficult—one you were able to overcome after a whole lot of stress and struggle. Maybe it was completing your degree and suffering through that first eye-opening internship, or perhaps it was bumbling through endless networking events before you felt confident working a room.

In the moment, these were probably tough situations—but now that they're in the past, you can look back and see how it eventually turned into something good, whether it was a better job, boosted confidence, or a well-connected network.

Now, imagine a future where you will no longer be in a job you despise, where you'll be able to continue pursuing your goals, and where you'll finally have a career that provides both meaning and happiness. Your current situation will get you there eventually—you just have to be patient.

By reflecting on the past and connecting it to the future, you can make your present unhappiness circumstance more bearable.

As quirky as it seems, sometimes we really benefit from challenging, stressful, and, yes, even unhappy situations. Try these three strategies to look at your work life through a new lens, and realize that by creating meaning, you can also create job satisfaction.

Photo of sun coming through clouds courtesy of Shutterstock.