July 24, 2023
The last few years have put work at the forefront of our consideration as individuals and our discussions as a society. Globally, people are thinking consciously about their work, its meaning and its place in their lives. This focus will surely create the conditions for a great reinvention —a reset of how we work as well as where, when and for whom. Identity is an important part of the dialogue: Should work be central to someone’s identity? Is it healthy for work to occupy our focus? And how much is too much?
Identity is your sense of self—and you tend to understand yourself based on your race, ethnicity, religion and regional culture—but also based on your roles, your personality and characteristics, your abilities, your interests, your beliefs and the things that motivate you. Another primary way you form your sense of identity is based on your affiliations and sense of belonging.
You accomplish feelings of belonging, not just through togetherness, but through a shared sense of social identity. When you share a common goal or come together around a project or purpose, you are likely to feel a sense of belonging with others. Naturally, the workplace is a place in which you can feel that unity and meaning—when you’re working on the tough problem, bringing a new idea to life or suffering through the challenging customer demands with colleagues. These situations are raw material for a sense of shared experience and the belonging that results.
When you have a strong sense of identity, you also tend to have higher levels of confidence and wellbeing. You tend to feel greater senses of pride, ownership, motivation and control over your circumstances. In addition, a sense of identity tends to be linked with an ability to support others—arising from having a solid foundation of your own.
The nature of work
Years ago, debates ensued about workaholism and a belief that work could be addictive and too much could be damaging. Today, the narrative about ‘quiet quitting’ seems to suggest the same: that too much work is damaging to someone’s quality of life. But these discussions unfortunately tend to focus on extremes and miss the nuanced meaning of work’s role in people’s lives.
Work can be damaging if it’s all-encompassing or toxic
Of course work can be damaging if it’s all-encompassing or toxic, but outside of these negative conditions, it is an important part of a full life. While relaxing on the couch, vacationing at the beach or spending time immersed in a good book are all terrific ways to refresh, work is also a source of meaning and fulfillment. Even when work isn’t ideal, it is an important way for people to express skills and talents, to contribute to the broader community and to experience meaning and purpose.
Perhaps surprisingly — given the negative narratives — global research by Gallup found about 80 percent of people enjoy their work. And a survey by LiveCareer found 87 percent of respondents believe their work is an important part of their life. In addition, 88% said their work is meaningful and they like their job. Fully 85 percent were satisfied with their work and 88 percent felt it had value for its own sake.
Work and life have spillover effects. When you’re happy at work, you tend to experience greater happiness outside of the workplace. The opposite is also true, when you’re more satisfied outside of work, you tend to perceive greater happiness within the workplace as well. So it’s worth focusing on healthy conditions for both work and life—and the important roles of each.
Work and identity
Work arose as a source of identity during the industrial revolution. Prior to that period, people shaped their meaning around agrarian lives. They harvested fields, churned butter or tended animals with family and neighbors. But with the advent of the industrial revolution, people moved to cities and spent increasing time with co-workers. People began to form their identities from their vocation—a baker among bakers or a farrier among farriers.
Today, work is a critical source of connection and meaning, and its role in linking us with others is expanding. Superficial interactions are correlated with happiness (as are deeper relationships, of course), but the conveniences of ordering coffee with the app or receiving deliveries on our doorsteps are reducing our most rudimentary interactions with others. Within this context, work is becoming an increasingly important place to share, learn and relate with others.
So should work be a critical part of your identity? Is it healthy if it is? Consider the concepts of centrality, dimensionality and alignment.
It is valid that work can be central to your identity. You think of yourself as a lawyer, a designer or a researcher. These can be healthy ways to understand yourself, and they are linked with purpose—how you understand the why of your contribution. But beware a situation where work becomes absolute. When your career helps define you in addition to your other roles in life—as a volunteer, a parent, a partner or a friend—great. But if work starts to overshadow everything else, it’s time to reassess and likely pull back on the extent to which work is defining your life.
Also consider alignment. When your work is aligned with your values, you’ll tend to feel a positive sense of identity associated with it. You significantly value learning, intellect and education and your role on the faculty at a university is well-aligned with this value. But if you’re philosophically opposed to fossil fuels and advocate for a departure from traditional energy sources at the same time you’re working at an oil and gas company, you may struggle. Happiness is driven by greater alignment between what you love to do and what you have to do—and it is also significantly influenced by the extent to which your values are reinforced in the time you spend working.
Dimensionality is another aspect to consider in your identity. When you have more sources of meaning in your life, and when they are diverse but related to each other, you’ll tend to experience the greatest happiness. For example, you may work at an art gallery, and you enjoy doing pottery with your best friend in your spare time. You also love hiking with your family on the weekends and nature is a primary source of inspiration in your creative pursuits in pottery as well as the choices you make toward more nature-inspired art at the gallery. The variety of activities you enjoy, linked by your passions help you feel more satisfied. You can achieve dimensionality by reflecting on what you value and taking steps to spend time doing what you love—and when you can create the conditions for aspects of your life to reinforce each other, it is especially powerful.
The disruption of work in the last few years creates a significant opportunity to re-consider and reimagine the experience of work—and also its meaning. Consider your roles both in terms of your work and your personal life—and embrace work as an important and healthy part of a fulfilled experience.