Days spent working on dead-end projects suck the life right out of us. That’s a scientific fact, not just common wisdom. In fact, the research related to this idea is discussed by Dan Ariely in his TEDtalk video below. Meaningful work has the opposite effect on our well-being because it energizes and inspires us. When the fruits of our labor are appreciated or – more importantly – necessary to some larger goal or positive outcome, we find that the “work” has been taken right out of working.
The following real-life example shows how finding meaning in our paid work or our volunteer activities can directly impact our feelings of gratification, pride, and even self-worth. Last Friday I was all set to donate my time and energy to feed 80 hungry football players. At the beginning of the season another mom and I had volunteered to provide the pre-game meal. I assumed my duties would entail purchasing some semi-nutritious items and dropping them off at the high school. I realized soon enough that I had underestimated the requirements of the volunteer position as well as the seriousness of the new football coach. When I learned the extent of my duties – cooking 40 baked potatoes, making 40 peanut butter sandwiches, as well as buying 40 energy bars of a particular brand and flavor, 40 individual pieces of fruit, a 36-count of water bottles and ice – I comically complained that I had accidently signed-up for a scavenger hunt for mothers. But this was no joke.
After I spent the morning shopping, I came home to unload my supplies, wash the potatoes, and start making sandwiches. It was then that I realized the importance of my duties and felt less martyred and more grateful. In a few short hours I would be able to watch 80 football-playing boys (a handful I’d known most of their lives) fuel themselves before the big game against a long-time rival team. My work was both necessary and important to the kids and their coaches. It certainly was not glamorous work, as evidenced by the burns I incurred on my knuckles while trying to rearrange the hot potatoes, but it was gratifying.
I arrived at the high school bearing the fruits of my labor in plenty of time: the potatoes were steaming hot, the protein bars were neatly stacked, the fruit was washed and readied, the Gatorades and waters chilled to perfection. In a blink of an eye the boys filed into the room and devoured the meal. While eating, the boys seemed quietly preoccupied with the task in-front of them. They were playing a team in a small division, from a bigger school, and with a great record. The boys I fed needed to beat the odds and outscore a team that most people believed was a sure thing to win.
Many of the boys thanked me and the other volunteer mom as they threw away their trash. It was unnecessary. Seeing their serious demeanor and realizing the importance of both the meal and the ritual of pre-game dining were our real rewards and all the thanks we needed.
My son’s team won the game that night 58-27. I was proud of the boys and happy that I could play a small role in their success. The win was the icing on the cake of a great volunteer experience. Most importantly it showed me that even when our job or volunteer activities seem mundane and impersonal, that focusing on the end product – and the individuals who are positively impacted by this work – can lead us to find meaning and pride in what we do.