What Gives Your Job Meaning?

Those lucky enough to have jobs are spending more and more time at them—so it matters more than ever to our mental health and psychological well-being what makes people happy on the job.

A recent poll asked Americans what it is that makes them happy at work, and the answers aren’t really surprising to anyone with an existential bent.

A significant number (88 percent) said it mattered to them that they could believe in the mission and purpose of their company. Meanwhile companies with fewer than 100 employees had a higher chance of those employees saying they were satisfied than the employees of companies with more than 2,500 workers.

And the ability to telecommute or schedule one’s time in a way that supports work/life balance was seen as crucial by many employees too.

The point, never stated but clearly apparent in the data, is that people respond well to jobs where they can make relevant choices—to do things that are in line with their values, to have impact over when and where they do things, and to be more than a cog in a machine.

I doubt anyone’s surprised by this, and it’s not going to make any shocking headlines, but it’s worth pointing out in a world increasingly dominated by the idea that people can achieve mental health by taking pills and balancing the chemicals in their brains: the ability to make relevant choices, in line with your values, is a crucial element of mental health.

People who can make relevant choices that are in line with their values are generally happier. That may not fit with the diagnostic criteria of the DSM, or be visible on an fMRI, but it’s a crucial fact, and a place where we need to begin when we ask what makes people happy, what makes them depressed, and how we can help them.

— Benjamin Wachs