Allan et al 2015 seemed to find a fascinating correlation: those with moderate and high meaning at work ended up with lower and declining overall meaning towards the end of their life, as compared to those with low meaning at work ending up with higher and increasing meaning towards the end of their life:


Meaning in work refers to the subjective experience that one’s work has significance, facilitates personal growth, and contributes to the greater good (Steger et al., 2012). Conceptually, meaning in work is considered a sub-domain of meaning that acts as a potential source of meaning in life (Ebersole & DePaola, 2001; Emmons, 2003; Fegg et al., 2007; Steger & Dik, 2009). This is supported by several studies that have asked participants the sources of their life meaning, finding common responses including relationships, religion, service, and work (Baum & Stewart, 1990; DeVogler & Ebersole, 1981; Emmons, 2005; Fegg et al., 2007).

Following from this conceptualization, researchers have argued that experiencing meaning in work translates into greater meaning in life (Steger & Dik, 2009), an assertion supported by several studies showing that participants consistently report work as a major source of meaning (e.g. Fegg et al., 2007). Few studies have examined both life meaning and work meaning in the same study, but Duffy, Allan, Autin, and Bott (2013) found a correlation of 0.49 between the two variables in working adults. Several studies have also illustrated how well-being in the work domain can affect meaning in the life domain. For example, workaholism and work–life conflict are negatively associated with purpose in life, and work enjoyment is positively associated with purpose in life (Bonebright, Clay, & Ankenmann, 2000). Finally, adolescents who report purposeful career goals also report higher meaning in life (Yeager & Bundick, 2009). Therefore, there is some reason to suspect that meaning in work may translate into higher meaning in life. […]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals spend more time working on weekdays than any other life activity, including sleep (8.7 h a day; BLS, 2013). Therefore, it is not surprising that the meaning individuals experience at work would have a large effect on overall life meaning. What might be surprising, however, is the manner in which these two variables are related in different age groups. The relation of age and life meaning for individuals with low work meaning was U-shaped, with life meaning being low for individuals in their prototypical working years (ages 20–50) and adults over 50 reporting higher life meaning. An opposite pattern existed with individuals high in work meaning, with life meaning highest for those in their prototypical working years and lower for those over 50.

These results exemplify the role that the presence, or absence of, work meaning may play in promoting an overall sense of life meaning. For individuals high in work meaning, work may represent the dominant way one cultivates life meaning (Emmons, 2005; Steger et al., 2012). Subsequently, it may be that during these prototypical working years, people high in work meaning have plenty of opportunities to contribute to their life meaning through work. However, for both high and low work meaning groups, participants in their 60s experienced similar levels of life meaning. The reasons for this finding are largely speculative, but people in the second half of life may have more difficulty extracting meaning from work, which in turn may result in this group experiencing lower levels of life meaning. For example, the sources of meaning associated with work, such as recognition for achievement, meeting basic needs, and materialism, are lower in older adults (DeVogler & Ebersole, 1981; Prager, 1996), and some sources outside of work, such as maintaining values and religious practices, are higher during this period (Prager, 1996). Similarly, older adults may be less concerned with generative actions, which may be primarily preformed at work, so work might lose its potency to influence life meaning (McAdams et al., 1993). In either case, work meaning may be stronger for middle age and older adults, but the relation between work meaning and life meaning may be lower for older adults relative to those in middle age.

Contrary to people high in work meaning, those low in work meaning may not receive the same type of life meaning benefit from work. Therefore, for people with low work meaning in their prototypical working years, work might be taxing and uninteresting. Perhaps, working in a low work meaning job almost nine hours a day is a drain on overall life meaning. Intriguingly, life meaning was higher for individuals older than 50. Our data suggests that participants in their 60s (those high and low in work meaning) display relatively the same amount of life meaning. Like the high work meaning group, older adults low in work meaning may be more likely to find life meaning in other activities, perhaps as sources of meaning change during this time (Ebersole & DePaola, 2001; Prager, 1996). […]

As evidenced in our data, individuals highest in work meaning are the lowest in searching for life meaning. Work may be such an all-encompassing source of life meaning for individuals high in work meaning that the need to search for new sources is nonexistent. Older adults in particular may never have developed the motivation or skills to look for other sources of meaning. The finding that older adults that are low and high in work meaning have relatively the same level of life meaning life suggests that no matter how much work meaning an individual has, it may be important to be continually searching for other meaning sources. […]

[T]his study was cross sectional and examined separate individuals at different life time points. Doing so allowed the tracking of trends between variables and age, but it is impossible to make any claims about causality or the life track of specific individuals.

Meaning in life and work: A developmental perspective, B.A. Allan et al., The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2015,


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