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career purpose

Search Amazon and you will find many dozens of books with some variation of the title: how to find your life purpose.

Our jobs have a lot to do with that purpose. But not exactly in the way most of us have come to think about it.

When choosing careers, or changing them, people talk a lot about looking for work that has meaning, that “has impact,” or “makes a difference.” About 35 percent of Millenials say having a job that makes a positive social impact is very important, according to a recent survey by CreativeLive. And 19 percent of those over 35 say the same.

Most of us–and society in general–put jobs on a sort of goodness continuum. Wall Street mortgage bankers—bad. Working for a non-profit helping the homeless—good. And so on.

It follows that if we have jobs we consider having purpose, we should feel good and happy but may actually find our work tedious or depressing. And if we don’t, we may feel restless or unsatisfied. Either way, our expectations have set us up for disappointment.

Surprisingly, whether you feel your work has meaning doesn’t depend on the actual job you do.

Job, Career or Calling?

After years of studying how people derive satisfaction from work, Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, found that people across a wide range of professions consider their work one of three things: a job, a career, or a calling. How they defined their work affected how much they enjoyed it.

Here’s the thing: People in the same jobs categorized them differently. While most of us would say being a doctor is a pretty meaningful career, doctors in her studies put themselves in all three categories. Janitors did the same. The same held true across all kinds of professions.

It is not what you do, or even how you do it, but how you think about it that gives you purpose.

Instead of confining yourself to a looking for a job that you think has meaning, it might be more helpful to think about how to create meaning in whatever job you have. That is, you can turn any job into a calling based on how you think about it and how you conduct the tasks you do. As Shawn Achor puts it in The Happiness Advantage, “a calling orientation can have just as much to do with mindset as with the actual work being done.”

One way to feel more enthusiastic about your job, not matter what it is, is to recast your job description in a way that highlights the aspects of it that have meaning to you. Redefine the impact of your job to express what is important to you or how it helps other people. A hospital janitor might be thinking of his calling as keeping patients away from germs that can make them even sicker, an accountant might cast his work as helping a family find the resources to educate their children.

The next step, says Wrzesniewski, is to customize your job to emphasize the tasks and responsibilities you derive the most from.

Says Achor, “Research have found that even the smallest tasks can be imbued with great meaning when they are connected with personal goals and values.”

Align your everyday tasks with your values, and you are fulfilling your calling, one day at a time. And you just might start loving your job.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.