Experiencing meaning at work is a pillar for stability and perseverance, especially in turbulent times.

"Man is the only living being who has to explain the world to himself in order to cope with life" - Remo Largo

By Christian Bachmann:
You may have asked yourself the question of meaningfulness more often during the pandemic than you did before. Habits, structures, relationships or performance capabilities that previously gave meaning to our lives, consciously or unconsciously, have been restricted severely.


Tatjana Schnell has been conducting research on the sense of meaning for a long time (www.sinnforschung.org) She distinguishes between "meaning in life" and "meaning of life”. Whether there is a meaning to life is a philosophical or theological question. "Meaning in life," however, asks the question of how people give meaning to their own lives.

„Meaning is that which has significance.“ 
Tatjana Schnell


Of course, your job makes sense in itself. First of all, it enables your economic existence. But what meaning does it have for you? Can you apply valuable personal skills to your work? Perceiving oneself as capable and competent serves as an important element of experiencing meaningfulness in our profession: We feel that we can provide services for other people that are meaningful.

According to Tatjana Schnell, personal sense of meaning is based on four indicators:

  • Coherence: Things seem coherent. I feel comfortable in my (professional) role because it fits my character, skills and needs. But this also means that we learn to affirm ourselves in what we are. Eckart von Hirschhausen expresses this wonderfully in his analogy with the penguin: The penguin is a bird, but incapable of flying. But watch the animal in water when it swims nothing comes close in ability and grace. So, the context we move in defines to a great extent if we experience ourselves as competent individuals. Video in german
  • Meaningfulness: What I do is meaningful to me and also to others. It is not the achievement of a personal goal that makes us happy, but only the meaning we give to this goal. Jens Corssen in: "Self-optimization does not make you happy," NZZ 18.12.20.
  • Orientation: I perceive a certain direction in my personal development. The energy I invest is in good proportion to the results achieved.
  • Belonging: I experience myself as part of a larger whole. Integration into a higher context, be it my work colleagues, my team or my company, gives me a sense of responsibility and of being useful.

If you reflect on your occupation on these four points, 2020 has certainly had a significant impact on affiliation. The restrictions have curtailed our need for interpersonal contact to a high degree. However, the pandemic has certainly had consequences on the other three factors influencing the sense of meaning, in your professional and private life.

«We demand that life must have a meaning - but it only has as much meaning as we ourselves are able to give it» Hermann Hesse

Ultimately, it is always you who can give meaning to your job and your professional goals. Meaning is an important intrinsic source of motivation for our work and also has a strong influence on our resilience. However, according to Tatjana Schnell, too much meaning in one's job also has its dangers. It might lead to "over-commitment" and thus possibly to self-exploitation. 

„Whether something is poison or medicine, is decided by its measure.“
after Paracelsus

As so often in life, it is the good measure that helps us to keep the balance. If possible, work should be an important source of meaning, but it should certainly not remain the only one. In our private life, in our free time, there are a multitude of sources of meaning that we can make ourselves aware of again or that we can open up anew.

„Upside“ oder „Downside“ Strategy?

However, it is often difficult to positively formulate for oneself how work or our private life could become more meaningful. Rolf Dobelli (NZZ 9.9.2017) contrasts the "upside" strategy - in this case the question of how I could experience more meaning - with the "downside" strategy: In this the question is: "What do I experience as meaningless?" or even more concretely: "What did I experience as meaningless in 2020?" Most of the time, we can clearly name and thus address the experiences we see as meaningless: We can adjust our tasks and responsibilities (role clarification), delegate tasks, address latent conflicts, or open ourselves to new experiences, challenges or relationships.

«The meaning of life is to live one's individuality in accordance with the environment. » Remo Largo

The word "sense" stems from the Indo-Germanic word group "Sent", which means to take a direction, to search for a track. I wish for everyone to continue on the trail of their personal sense of life. Often not all our wishes and hopes come true. And yet, it is our responsibility to always orient ourselves anew towards what gives us meaning, and thus to live our individuality in the best possible harmony with the environment.

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