Meaning is created.
We often talk as if some jobs hold more meaning, or that we’ve lost meaning in our life as if it were an object that fits better into some environments than others. But meaning is not an external object, it is created inside the human brain—which gives us the power to inject more meaning into whatever job or environment we find ourselves. How?
Here’s a simple experiment I used with Harvard students in a psychology course: “As creative as you possibly can draw a picture of a coffee mug. Be more creative than the person sitting next to you.” Is it sadistic to watch highly competitive perfectionists compete at drawing? Probably. But it is also illuminating. I just repeated this experiment with 10,000 salespeople in Dallas and the result was the same. You get coffee mugs with unicorn handles, and overly generous self portraits drawn on the side of the mug. But you know what you get only once in 10,000? A coffee mug with anything but a point of view straight on to the mug. You get only one mug drawn from a bird’s eye view. Why does this matter?
Even when we are trying to be creative about our world, we are creative without changing our perspective. But the human brain craves novelty, and if we are feeling mentally stuck, lacking meaning at work, a change of perspective is not only positive, it is the only way to get unstuck. The beginning of meaning is the awareness of multiple realities at work. And this is something you can train your brain to do.
In my new book, Before Happiness, I describe the research on the Add Vantage Points technique. Take a mental object that is currently detracting from meaning at work. Most people choose their email inbox. When we architect our mental reality at work, we conceive of our inbox as “overflowing” and “overwhelming”–two descriptors that make us dread the task. I had business leaders at Nationwide and Mattress Firm compete in one minute to come up with as many descriptors for email as possible, getting one point for each negative descriptor and three points for each positive one. For the first thirty seconds, most of the responses are negative: “stressful,” “never-ending,” and “soul-draining.” But then a point gets hit where people think of a flurry of positive descriptors: “source of leads,” “feeling of productivity,” “opportunity to connect,” “record of successes,” “source of new ideas.”
The next step is to realize that all of these descriptors are true, but we only have allowed our brain to use two of the most unhelpful descriptors to guide our mental reality. When we switch to using the positive descriptors, and describe the task to others using them, engagement levels rise, our speed at accomplishing the task increases, and in a study I did with two researchers at Yale Ali Crum and Peter Salovey, we found that when you connect to the meaning in stress, headaches, backaches and fatigue drop 23%, and productivity metrics rise nearly 30%.
When people struggle for meaning at a job, they have often only used the negative descriptors as the building blocks for that task. Take a more onerous mental object: dishes in the sink. Most people for thirty seconds write, “messy,” “never-ending,” “makes me not want to go home,” “the reason I hate life.” I found them to be even more negative than emails at work. But using the Add Vantage Points technique, people half-way through think of these: “way to show spouse love,” “opportunity to feel productive,” and “meditative.” I don’t know about the meditative one, but when I force myself to do the dishes, I feel this euphoria, like I have a whole new lease on life. I’ve given my brain a small mental victory which creates what researchers call “a cascade of success,” where the belief that our behavior matters transfers to the next task.
The point of this is not to help us like onerous tasks, but rather to recognize that not only are there multiple realities if we change our perspective and vantage point, but that some realities are more valuable. When someone conceives of dishes not as “hateful” but as “an opportunity to show love,” their brain accelerates towards the task, they complete it faster, and amazingly, they find meaning not only in inboxes, but in dishes in the sink. Take one minute right now and do the add vantage points technique for your job. If you change your perspective, and construct a mental reality about your job using the positive descriptors, you’ll find not only do you start liking your job more, you’ll find that you have just become an incredibly powerful architect of meaning.