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Finding Meaning At Work: How We Shape And Think About Our Jobs

man flying on a paper airplane
Malte Mueller
/
Getty Images/fStop

Why do you work? Popular wisdom says your answer depends on what your job is.

But psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University finds it may have more to do with how we think about our work.

"People who see their work as a calling are significantly more satisfied with their jobs. They're significantly more satisfied with their lives. They're more engaged in what it is that they're doing and tend to be better performers, regardless of what the work is," said Wrzesniewski, who researches how people find meaning in the work that they do.

Across a diverse array of jobs — from secretaries to custodians to computer programmers — Wrzesniewski finds people are about equally split in whether they say they have a "job," a "career," or a "calling."

In the latter half of this week's radio show, we consider the impact of awards.

Awards are so ubiquitous that we rarely stop to ask, do they work? Do prizes inspire and motivate, or do they cause jealousy and resentment?

Economist Bruno Frey says that when awards are designed well, they can have a powerful effect on our behavior.

"When people are given an award, in general they are likely to work better, to be more engaged, to have, as we say, higher intrinsic motivation. That is, they like to work... and therefore are contributing really to the social good."

Additional Resources:

1) "Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People's Relations To Their Work" by Amy Wrzesniewski, Clark McCauley, Paul Rozin, and Barry Schwartz in the Journal of Research in Personality, 1997

2) "Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work" by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton in The Academy of Management Review, 2001

3) Bruno Frey's book, co-authored with Jana Gallus, is called Honours Versus Money: The Economics of Awards.

4) Can an award motivate editors to continue to contribute to Wikipedia? This study explored that question.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Max Nesterak
Thomas Lu (he/him) is a producer for NPR's science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast is a perfect equation of curiosity, nerdiness and everyday discoveries.