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How to Find Meaning in Life When Your Job Leaves You Feeling Empty

Bro, you’re making a bigger difference than you think, bro. I promise, bro.

It feels wrong to moan about work when so many people are unemployed, but nothing highlights the horrors of our daily grind quite like being told to work even harder during a pandemic. It would be a feat if you were able to stay the course while being screamed at for politely requesting that customers wear masks, and it would require a certain sageness to cheerfully focus on dull projects while America grapples with the paramount problems of policing, racism and suicide.

Yet, this world leaves you with few other options — you have to make a living somehow, whether you like what you do or not. If you feel really uninspired, you could theoretically make a career change, but up and leaving your stable job during an unemployment crisis would certainly be a dicey move — although not an entirely impractical one.

All you really know is that you want something more meaningful. You feel stuck and your work feels valueless, especially in the face of everything else going on in the world right now. So, what should you do? 

Let’s take this one step at a time, beginning with how to find meaning at work…

Start by Soul Searching

Capitalism has a way of keeping us so busy that we often lose touch with what we even want. So before you make any drastic changes to what you do for a living, think hard about what would bring meaning to your life and what has brought meaning to your life in the past. “It’s really important to get specific,” says career change coach Maggie Mistal. “Do you value justice? Do you value family? Do you value relationships? Do you value beauty? These are big, lofty words, but the truth is, we all have stuff that we value more than others.” As simple as it sounds, it helps to make a concrete list of your values, then ask yourself whether your job is serving those values, and write down the answers.

Take a Step Back

Now that you have your values cleared up, consider how those values are already playing a part in what you do. It may not always feel this way, but the work you do — no matter what it is — will inevitably touch the lives of others. “You can have fun and make a difference, believe it or not,” Mistal says. “It really does make a difference to have fun with others and help them have quality of life.” Even if only for the sake of pulling in money so you can play Animal Crossing with your girlfriend or making your coworker’s lives a little bit easier, your job serves some kind of meaningful purpose. If you can remember that whenever you start feeling useless at work, you may be able to make those negative emotions go away. Chances are, your impact on the people around you is bigger than you think.

Pilot Your Meaningful Idea 

If you nail down something new that brings you meaning, you may not even need to leave your current job to make it happen. “Just give it a chance,” says Mistal. “If you want to make a difference, start doing it right now.” Get that side hustle going, start that hobby you’ve been eyeing or look within your own company to see if there are any more meaningful spots you can fill. For example, Mistal tells me one of her clients works alongside a 3D printer and was able to convince their company to print face shields for those who need them during the pandemic. If you get creative, you may be able to pivot within your job to something slightly more meaningful to you.

Talk to Your Heroes

If you still end up wanting to make some sort of career change, even if sometime down the road, Mistal says it pays to chat with people who are already doing what you want before taking that grand leap. Ask them about how they got there and whether what they do brings meaning to them. I know, there’s never been a worse time to network than during this pandemic, but if you want to find meaning in life, I guess you need to actually talk to some people.

Look Elsewhere

While finding meaning at work would be ideal for most of us, since we spend the vast majority of our waking hours working, sometimes you just have to work for money, your life purpose be damned. And sometimes that side hustle never pans out. But none of that means you can’t make a huge difference in the world. In fact, psychologist Jeanette Raymond sent me a whole list of opportunities for making meaningful changes, both internationally and locally:

And the list goes on. Hell, even the simple act of voting can make a big difference in the world.

The point is, as we’ve all seen due to this pandemic, work is a completely unreliable place to search for stability, let alone meaning. Jobs come and go. Some people get lucky and others don’t. Moreover, the people who we work for almost never care about how we feel doing the work we do. 

If you can find meaning at work, that’s a blessing. But if you can’t, there are so many other ways to leave a mark on this world, and no matter how meaningless your life may feel right now, I guarantee that you mean everything to someone out there. So remember, if you ever feel lost in the hollow cloud of capitalism, you’re making more of a difference than you think.