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  • Dr. Patricia Gianotti

What Motivates Us at Work and In Life

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

My husband and I were having dinner with friends on the Eve of the New Year. Somehow, we got on the topic of wondering about what creates long-term satisfaction in one’s work (and for the purposes of this article, I would add satisfaction in life as well).


As we begin another new year, a time when most of us pledge to make efforts in hopes of improving our lives, it might make sense to consider some of the important external factors that have a direct influence on our personal satisfaction and well-being. Since most of us spend the majority of our waking lives at work, how we feel about the work we do and how we’re treated at work certainly has a big impact on our overall sense of happiness and well-being.


Research studies from the field of organization psychology list the following four factors as critical to keeping people satisfied at work. Generally, if any two of the four are missing, a sense of dissatisfaction will increase, often to the point of becoming restless, unhappy, discouraged, even depressed.


1. People need to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves. Although there has been much focus on the “me generation” – the drift toward narcissism, Pew Research statistics reveal that most individuals derive a greater degree of life satisfaction if they feel they are able to participate in efforts that are dedicated to something larger than themselves. When people participate in work that benefits the larger community, it creates a sense of “we”, a sense of personal connection and belonging.


2. People want to believe that what they do matters. Only 30% of employees in America feel engaged at work and believe what they do really matters, according to a 2013 Gallup report. Disengagement stems from conditions where demands on peoples’ time far exceeds their capacity to produce, coupled with increased competitiveness, and the rise of digital technology. By contrast, individuals who are self-employed, individuals whose work involves helping others, or individuals who have a large measure of autonomy at work tend to believe that their efforts make a difference.


3. People want to be appropriately recognized for the value and contributions they make. According to the Harvard Business Review, one of the top factors in job satisfaction is believing that you bring value to your work place. Receiving feedback on a job well done, regardless of whether you receive additional monetary remuneration, is something we all need in order to be assured that we are valued. In addition, when individuals are able to align their particulars strengths and talents to work that allows them to do what they love, the result is increased energy, engagement, improved confidence and self-esteem.


4. People need to feel secure about a sense of the future and their place in it. When people lose confidence in their leaders, whether that be institutional or political, fear and insecurity increase, coupled with feelings of discouragement, lack of productivity and motivation, anxiety, depression, apathy, and hopelessness. Often, long-term goals and planning for the future fall by the wayside, leaving people listless and wondering about their place and purpose in life.


According to the New York Times, “employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.”


Humans are “hard-wired” for relational connection. Although self-initiative and personal drive are important to creating a sense of well-being, we also need to feel connected to community, to people who value us and let us know that our efforts make a difference in their lives. If choices about changing your workplace environment are limited, focusing on other areas of your life where you can achieve satisfaction in the above-mentioned areas will help to create life balance and a sense of purpose. Now, that’s a New Year’s resolution worth making.

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