The essence of meaningful work: making a positive contribution

Work occupies a central place in our lives, not only because it provides a livelihood, but also because it can be a source of personal fulfillment and social recognition. Meaningful work contributes to our general well-being and can have a significant impact on our mental health. In this article I discuss a new paper by the Finnish psychologist and philosopher Frank Martela about what is now the core of meaning in work.

When is work meaningful?

Martela explains that until now meaningful work has mainly been associated with autonomy and self-development. In other words, your work is meaningful when you can make your own choices and follow preferences and when it allows you to grow. 
However, Martela thinks another dimension is at the heart of the concept: making a positive contribution. In his view, the meaningfulness of work is determined by how much the work matters to others and what positive effect it has on the world.
Meaningful work is characterized by the profound, inherent value it has, beyond the practical value it provides for survival, happiness, or financial success. We experience meaningful work from the inside as important and can be seen as a fundamental human need.

What happens if your work is not meaningful?

Doing work that we do not experience as meaningful has negative consequences for us. When we as working people feel disconnected from the results of our work and do not experience a positive impact on others or on the world as a whole, we experience alienation.
Alienation means that you lack a personal connection to your work and experience distance between who you are and what you stand for and the tasks you perform. This alienation can lead to negative consequences such as dissatisfaction, poor motivation, reduced involvement, increased turnover and less good mental health.

Strive for actual positive impact

Martela argues that there can be a difference between subjective meaningfulness and objective meaningfulness. Subjective meaningfulness refers to the feeling that we make a positive contribution, objective meaningfulness means that we actually make a positive contribution. In other words, that our perception is supported by factual data.
Martela argues for a 'guaranteed subjectivism'. He advocates that we continue to critically reflect on the effects of our work and investigate whether they actually have a positive impact.

Implications for individuals, organizations and society

If we go along with Martela's analysis, this has consequences for both employees and organizations. Employees can focus more on the impact of their work and strive not only to seek autonomy and self-development, but also, and above all, to do meaningful work. This requires reflecting on how your work makes a meaningful contribution and looking for ways to make progress in this.
Organizations can begin to see meaningful work as an important goal by realizing that employees feel better and function better when they make a positive contribution.


Meaningful work is a complex and multifaceted concept, in which autonomy and self-development often receive the most attention. Frank Martela's approach to the importance of contributing to society as a crucial dimension in meaningful work offers an inspiring perspective.
By paying attention to the impact of our work on others and the world around us, we can strive for a more balanced and fulfilling work experience. Organizations and society as a whole have a responsibility to support employees in their pursuit of meaningful work by providing opportunities to make a positive contribution and recognizing the value of this contribution.


Coert Visser said…
Link to article

► This study by Meng et al. (2023) examines internal fluctuations in meaningful work and their factors and consequences. In a diary study, 86 nurses from different hospitals reported their work experiences for 10 consecutive working days. Results showed that daily fluctuations in autonomy support and prosocial impact were associated with fluctuations in the experience of meaningful work, which in turn predicted employee engagement. Prosocial orientation strengthened the positive relationship between prosocial impact and meaningful work, while autonomy orientation negatively moderated the effect of autonomy support on meaningful work, indicating the need to distinguish between assisted and assisted autonomy orientation. (Assisted autonomy orientation means that a person experiences his autonomy thanks to the support of others or the situation, while assisted autonomy orientation means that a person pursues and experiences his autonomy through his own efforts, even without external support). These findings are relevant to practice because they give HR professionals and managers insight into how to promote meaningful work by creating a supportive work environment and recognizing employees' prosocial impact.