Be happy. Find meaning.

Mike Morrison, Ph.D.

Mike Morrison, Ph.D.

Creating Meaningful Change

May 6, 2022

Be happy.  Find meaning. 

I love the simple logic of this framing.  It not only has powerful implications for our personal lives – but has the potential to reshape our work lives as well.

In many ways this is the pathway we are already on.  Here’s an example . . .

Happiness is the first fifteen minutes in meeting a dear friend at Starbucks.  It starts with a hug then quickly moves to catching up.  It’s hard to find a pause point as each comment triggers the next.  A warm glow encompasses both of you as you fully experience and lean into each moment.

The conversation ultimately shifts to “meaning” as you remember why you came.  You are at one of those critical crossroads in life that needs some sage advice from a trusted friend.  She beautifully raises questions – but not seeking any answers at this point.  She has you thinking from different perspectives.  Much of the anxiety surrounding the crossroads decision has started to recede – replaced by a new sense of clarity and insight.  True meaning-making has begun.

We can see how the “happy” moments open us up and lighten the load we are carrying.  They create a sense of being and belonging that draws us fully into the present.  They also create the emotional capacity to find meaning in the challenges and uncertainty that surrounds us in our contemporary lives.  We know this from Barbara Fredrickson’s illuminating research on how positive emotions “broaden and build” one’s awareness while encouraging new thoughts and actions.

Over time, a broadened repertoire of skills and psychological resources emerges.  

We can hopefully see how this “be happy – find meaning” dynamic plays out at work.  We find happiness in the occasional bag of bagels; the little recognitions from our colleagues; the added flex-time arrangements that help us balance our lives; and the little wins that give us a sense of progress.  Positive (albeit somewhat temporary) emotions flow from these kind of events – broadening and building our capacity to overcome the inevitable negative emotions in a work environment (e.g., someone took the last bagel, criticism from a colleague, being left out of a meeting, the flex-time policy has been reduced, etc.).  The good news is that we can “choose” to be happy and author those small acts of kindness that create upward spirals in a work environment.

When happy, we are now more ready to fully deal with the meaning-making challenges that will play a larger role in defining our long-term success and who we will become.  Not surprisingly, meaning tends to be a more complex domain, evolving around two components.

·      Sensemaking:  Making sense of our experiences to develop a coherent understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

·      Purpose:  The motivation to pursue longer-term goals that will also transcend our narrow self-interests.

Meaning is what we feel when we struggle with a project and then start to experience those hard-earned breakthroughs.  Or it might be the challenges imbedded in the work itself. Imagine the nurse who stays committed to the most demanding department in the hospital.  Beyond the feelings of satisfaction for her loyalty, she is cultivating the grit, pluck and emotional stamina that deepens her sense of being.  She has grown in ways that would be hard to explain.

This example reveals how meaning-making can be difficult to fully grasp because of the on-going nature of finding continuity in one’s inner life while connecting to something larger than oneself (our big “W” work).  Researchers believe that much of meaning-making evolves outside our conscious awareness – making it difficult to report.  In other words, a deeper sense of understanding can subconsciously occur while someone struggles with a challenge.  The difficulties can mask the true gains but you surprise yourself with the authority in your voice when you finally say . . . “I believe we are on the right path.”

Without a full sense of knowing why, we learn to trust our gut. 

We also know that pursuing meaning in life (and at work) requires active engagement and involvement in activities that reflect one’s identity and core values.  Doing this kind of on-going values clarification is stressful over the short-term but facilitates meaning over the long-term.  The on-going and continuous change in our work lives not only requires us to continuously adapt – but to reframe our meanings.  Every change has a potential to be disruptive to our identities and meaning system – or an opportunity to find some new meaning.

Here’s the opportunity for our most progressive organizations:

It is our employee engagement practices . . . 

  •  . . . the surveys, the management practices, the supporting elements of culture
  • . . . that need to fully leverage and balance the “be happy – find meaning” mindset.

It starts with the simple practices that promote happiness while broadening and building our emotional skills and capacity.  We can then lean on the kind of “meaning-centered” intentions and inquiry that can help us to achieve where we want to go and what we want to become.  Here are a few of the illustrative questions that were featured in the last article that underscore this practice:

  • How are you proactively aligning your role to the changing needs that challenge our organization?
  • How do you help yourself and others “feel like they belong here”?
  • How are you guiding or contributing to needed change efforts?

So, I am curious.  To what degree are you aware of the “be happy – find meaning” dynamic?  They are two different but self-renewing paths that inspire each other.  They are the dance of life.

Be happy.  Find meaning.

Smile often.  Expect more.

Be kind.  Speak truth.

Eat dessert.  Practice forgiveness.

Rescue dogs/cats.  Rescue yourself.