THE POWER & PURPOSE OF MEANING AT WORK
Updated: Feb 27
‘Work’ is currently changing before our eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has made many rethink their relationship to work. People are reshuffling their priorities, opening their eyes to what is important. Why did it take us so long to open our eyes to damage global work culture is having on our wellbeing? Let’s take a look at how we got here and what we can do to regain some purpose and meaning – potentially turning work into a true vocation.
HOW DID WE GET TO THIS POINT?
With the Industrial Revolution societies began shifting away from agricultural and craft-focused work and towards mechanized factories and machine operating. The second Industrial Revolution – circa 1850 to 1913 – began America’s push towards 8-hour workdays and eventually, in 1938, the establishment of the 40-hour workweek. Before those important changes, people often worked 80-100 hours per week. Many people, maybe your parents or grandparents, fought long and hard for the Fair Labor Standards Act - which enshrined in US law the right to work a reasonable amount of time each week. It is strangely fascinating how we have slowly, and somewhat voluntarily, made a return to those excruciating conditions our forebears sought so hard to eliminate.
A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that overwork killed more than 745,000 people in a single year! The Japanese even have their own word for death from overwork – karoshi. Modern work culture has done something horrific to our bodies – it has created in each of us a constant drip of cortisol (our stress hormone). Our bodies are not designed for this. The feeling of stress or anxiety is associated with the fight or flight response provided by our sympathetic nervous system. This was designed to keep us on our toes, focused and alert to danger. However, once the danger passed our bodies would shift back to the parasympathetic nervous system – which restores calm to our bodies and prevents us from overwork.
What is happening is that our current lives demand so much from us – and demand that it be done immediately – that our bodies are no longer shifting back to a parasympathetic state. The stress hormone keeps dripping, keeping us in a low-level state of fight or flight. This can damage our bodies over time. Stress has been shown to be the root cause of many concerns, such as heart disease and diabetes.
This is driven by a consumption-focused economy – a desire implanted by decade upon decade of companies instilling a Pavlovian need in us for continued consumption. Envision yourself working hard to be able to afford the new status symbol you feel you deserve, or that would make you feel like you’ve achieved a certain level of affluence. You work really hard for this, sometimes sacrificing time with family and friends, because achieving this has become a driving force in your life. But interestingly, once you achieve the goal the shine wears off rather quickly as your focus turns to the next item that you must gain to replicate that feeling. The process then repeats itself as you focus on ever-larger goals that never quite allow you to grasp the elusive sensation of meaning you need. This is the Hedonic Treadmill.
What is curious about the last few years is that they seem to have caused a great many people to at least take a brief step off the Hedonic Treadmill and take an objective look at their lives. Because of this pandemic-induced pause, many are taking a moment to reevaluate what is important to their wellbeing.
THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF MODERN WORK
Much of the modern work – when dissected objectively - tends to lack meaning. We get up, go to work, bang away for 8, 10, 16 hours. Then we slink home to collapse of exhaustion after attempting to care for our families.
What do we have to show for our workloads? A new training initiative that really impacted sales numbers, improving your core competency, crafting memos of key takeaways, building bandwidth, and then circling back with the team to unpack what synergies you’ve uncovered? Is this what we’ve all dreamed about when hoping for meaningful work? Not only is this style of work not using our minds to their full advantage, but it is also going hand in hand with the degradation of our resilience and wellbeing.
How long will we settle for this drudgery? It seems not much longer. The pandemic, by taking a majority of the workforce out of their cubicles and forcing them to work in new ways revealed something surprising – we kind of dislike the way work has been done for the past 75 years. We discovered that we like having the flexibility to take care of our families AND work on our chosen profession in a more balanced way. It was liberating, and somewhat taboo, being able to take a walk around a park at 2p instead of sitting in meetings ad nauseum. After the initial learning curve – many, but not all decided they kind of liked this lower stress experience and began spurring what has been called The Great Resignation. What’s fascinating to notice is that from some perspectives, this has been going on for much longer than the last few years.
HOW DO WE FIND THE MEANING WE’RE AFTER?
We need to find ways, within the work we choose, to grow personally, to build community, to find belonging, and serve something greater than ourselves. Meaning has often been found in experiences of awe, or rooted in timeless stories. Another element that helps us find meaning is to build up our personal resilience to the challenges the world throws at us.
When confronted with a challenge – mental, physical, or spiritual – it has been found that if you are able to do three things, you can naturally build your resilience so as to better handle similar situations in the future.
The first thing is to be able to fully comprehend the challenge in front of you – either alone or with outside help. Looking at the challenge from all sides, objectively, and assessing the level of response it requires. Secondly, managing the challenge – again, alone or with help. Lastly, being able to find meaning in the challenge is the critical element towards building resilience. This trajectory has been giving a big name – salutogenics. It basically means focusing on health, as opposed to focusing on disease, a term many of us already know – pathogenic.
By focusing on health via comprehending, managing, and finding meaning we are setting ourselves up for a more balanced relationship with work.
Where else have we typically found meaning? Human beings have found meaning in both nature and philosophy throughout history. Metaphors abound in the forests and prairies for those open to seeing them. Many stories, myths, and legends have highlighted the transformational power of the forest; characters moving through the dark woods, only to emerge on the other side transformed in some way. Or characters that discover a sunlit glade amidst the foreboding forest that houses unicorns and fairies filled with joy and magic.
People often go out into nature to think deeply, ponder the nature of existence, or turn over what’s on their mind within the quiet embrace of green spaces. Philosophy has also played a key role throughout history in offering humanity different scaffolds on which to evaluate and examine their existential beliefs. The philosophers who have written about nature’s ability to help us find meaning are varied and from many different cultures. This reinforces the universality of nature as a lynchpin for human satisfaction and meaning.
TODAY’S TRANFORMATIONAL FOREST
I have known the power of the forest since before I could even articulate it. When I was five years old, my mother would often drive me through a forest preserve near our home. In fact, I loved the curving, climbing road through the maples and their dappled light so much, I would ask her to drive through every time we passed it on the way to or from some errand. It held a magical and mystical quality that could not be put into words. It had to be experienced.
I recently visited that same forest preserve, now 40+ years later. The drive through the woods seemed a bit shorter than I remembered, but it was no less magical. This reinforced that the forests have messages for us, should we wish to hear them, for our entire lives. If I visit the forest again in another 20 years, I am sure it will still have some new things to teach me about meaning.
One way that you can experience this calming, intentional exploration of meaning is to try a forest bathing walk with a certified guide. Within the framework of a forest bathing walk can be found many salutogenic elements and insightful philosophical exchanges – with both human and more-than-human beings.
There is a saying in the guide community: “The forest is the therapist; the guide just opens the door.” In a very salutogenic way, the forest allows anyone to come to it with their challenges. Sitting in the quiet of the woods, the possibility of comprehending a challenge in new ways can emerge, as can new ideas for managing any anxieties that are confronting you. And examples of resilience abound in the sylvan constellations of leaves, branches, bark, and roots. Trees have existed nearly twenty-two times longer than our species. I believe the wisdom that has accumulated during that time is certainly worth exploring. I surely don’t have all the answers, but maybe the trees do…
FOREST BATHING AND WORK
Society has tasted balance. We have newly rediscovered connections with nature and are absorbing its numerous benefits. These are key pieces to finding meaning in our lives, as they allow us quiet time for contemplating all with which we are faced. Even one of the world's largest hedge funds has personally experienced the positive benefits of the forest.
Forest bathing is an intentional, immersive practice that brings us face to face with the environment that nurtured us for the majority of our existence. Forest bathing is a recent iteration of an ancient practice. This practice has existed across many cultures and had many names – but ultimately it is about helping us to find meaning.
The next time you are struggling with a personal or work challenge, I invite you to make a sojourn to the forest. Leave your devices at home, allow yourself time without any distractions but the birds, the wind in the leaves, and water trickling nearby. My wish for you is that meaning will not be far behind.