A lot has been written about job satisfaction, and being unfulfilled at work is a common source of unhappiness. But a simple reframing might help you understand why you find work unsatisfying, and how you can increase your sense of fulfilment at work.
Martin Seligman, founder of the field of positive psychology, writes that most people tend to classify their jobs in one of three ways: a job, a career, or a calling.
If you see your work as a job, you do it to pay the bills and keep a roof over your head. It finances the rest of your life, your hobbies and social life, which provide more intrinsic satisfaction. You probably can’t wait to clock off at the end of the day, look forward to the weekend, and dread Monday mornings.
A ‘job’ job is a means to an end. It’s probably futile to seek a sense of satisfaction from the job itself, outside of what it allows you to pursue and achieve outside of work. But a ‘job’ job can be very rewarding when it allows you to design the rest of your life with scope to pursue other passions.
If you see your work as a career, you’re aiming for promotion and advancement, and perhaps the prestige that comes with rising up the ranks. You don’t mind doing overtime or taking work home occasionally, especially if it might improve your chances of future promotion. You want to do a good job, but sometimes get frustrated and disillusioned by the incessant competition of the rat race.
A ‘career’ job is still a means to an end – it’s not fulfilling in itself, but a stepping stone to more fulfilling circumstances. If you feel your hard work is recognised and increases your chance of promotion, a ‘career’ job can be satisfying.
If you see your work as a calling, it’s inherently satisfying. You get to use your strengths and frequently experience flow states, that feeling of being in the zone. You don’t especially look forward to the weekend or dread Monday, and you don’t mind staying back or doing extra work. You would keep working if you won the lottery tomorrow.
A ‘calling’ job is not a means to end. It’s an end in itself. People who see their work as a calling usually see it as a vital part of who they are, and it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when telling others about themselves.
It’s useful to examine your current work under all three frameworks to help you understand how you can find satisfaction in it. When faced with an unpleasant task, overworked, or simply stuck in relentless drudgery, ask the following questions: What will this allow me to pursue outside of work? Will this improve my opportunities to advance? What value am I providing others? How am I contributing to the bigger picture?
Means to an end
|Means to an end||
End in itself
Satisfaction from enabling other pursuits
|Satisfaction from advancement & prestige||
Satisfaction from the work itself
Unfulfilling when not enough time or money
|Unfulfilling when no foreseeable advancement opportunities||
Current income important
|Future income important||
Income less important than work being worthwhile
|What will this allow me to pursue outside of work?||Will this improve my opportunities to advance?||
What value am I providing others? How am I contributing to the bigger picture?
To figure out how you see your work, you can take a short questionnaire at www.authentichappiness.org. Understanding this will help you establish where to look for more fulfilment.
If you don’t find your job fulfilling, but you recognise it as a ‘job’ job, a means to an end, thinking about the travel you’ll be able to afford as a result of working might help you persevere during its worst moments. Similarly, if you recognise it as a ‘career’ job, thinking about long-term advancement will help you ride out short-term difficulties.
If you see your work as a job or a career, but not a calling, find moments in your day where you can use your strengths. While you don’t usually have complete control over your circumstances, you always have control over your perception of them.
As Jonathan Haidt writes, “If you’re stuck in a job that doesn’t match your strengths, recast and reframe your job so that it does.” It might be seeking out those tasks that get you in the zone. Or it might be focusing on how you’re helping others – colleagues, customers, patients, even strangers – rather than what’s in it for you.