Unlocking Meaning and Thriving Together: The Power of Meaningful Experiences and Relationships in Work and Life

By Mark Griffin

Meaningful experiences and relationships are the essence of a fulfilling life and work.

From our experience working with executives to enhance their wellbeing and performance, we have discovered that living and leading with purpose boils down primarily to two key elements: meaningful experiences and meaningful relationships.  

By actively seeking, building, and investing in these aspects while being intentional and present in them, you pave the way for a fulfilling and inspiring life. This applies not only to individuals but also to teams and the people surrounding you (your “We”). For self-reflection on meaningful relationships, click here, and for reflection on meaningful experiences, try here.  

Now, considering a professional perspective, what can we do to help our team members find meaning in their work and relationships? Aside from the obvious benefits of their happiness, what else can we achieve together? 

Two significant studies support the significance of simplifying life into these two areas: the Harvard Grant study, the longest longitudinal study on adult happiness (75+ years), and the concept of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

  • The Grant study revealed that regardless of background, socioeconomic status, or perceived markers of success, the strongest correlation to adult happiness towards the end of life was meaningful relationships. Simply put, those who had meaningful relationships were happier, while those who didn’t were less so. Considering that we spend over 60% of our waking hours at work, there is a tremendous opportunity to foster meaningful relationships (and thus happiness) in the workplace. 
  • Flow is the psychology of optimal experiences. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the more optimal experiences people had, the happier they were. In fact, the eight characteristics of optimal experiences themselves were, in part, a definition of happiness. Think about a time when you were completely absorbed in an experience, lost track of time, and acted intuitively while focusing and acting completely on the edge of challenge and skill. These are the moments when you are in flow. It’s worth noting two key points: first, the more optimal experiences you have, the more likely you are to have them in the future, thanks to the mind-body connection; second, when you are in flow at work, your productivity can increase by up to 500% (Steven Kotler). 

Numerous research studies support these concepts in relation to groups and teams in the workplace. Here are four simple ways helping people find meaning at work enhances team engagement and performance: 

1. Meaningful relationships strengthen trust, cooperation, and a sense of belonging, establishing psychological safety, improving communication, fostering innovation, and enhancing problem-solving (Edmondson & McManus, 2007). 

2. Meaningful relationships also increase job satisfaction and commitment. Demonstrating warmth and support, which are essential in meaningful relationships, enhances individuals’ well-being, self-worth, and commitment to both others and the organization (Barsade & Gibson, 2012). 

3. Meaningful experiences arise from aligning individual and organizational values, leading to a sense of shared purpose and motivation, which in turn boosts engagement, commitment, and performance (Wrzesniewski et al., 2013). 

4. Meaningful experiences provide challenges that facilitate knowledge acquisition and skill development through deliberate practice. This pushes teams to improve and elevates their performance. 

These four benefits are supported by research. One simple line that encapsulates it all is from a conversation with Kevin Roberts, former Worldwide CEO and Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi: “Happy bunnies outperform unhappy bunnies.” Research backs this up in terms of productivity. If you don’t believe it, just ask Google or Chat GPT. The conversation can be found here. 

So, if you understand that helping your team find meaning at work leads to greater happiness, fulfillment, commitment, and productivity, the question is how to achieve this.  

Here are seven strategies to support your “We” in finding meaning at work: 

1. Articulate Impact: Help employees see how their work impacts others and align that impact with their personal aspirations. Many people haven’t taken the time to reflect on their impact, but it can make a profound difference when they do. You can facilitate this process. 

2. Model and encourage care, empathy, listening, and inclusion: Show genuine interest in your people as individuals, not just as resources or machines. Recognize and reward others when they display these qualities. 

3. Encourage social interactions and pro-social contributions: Create opportunities for informal conversations, meet-ups, and coffee chats. Additionally, facilitate buddy chats or paired development conversations to spark meaningful, supportive discussions. Encourage involvement in employee resource groups, community work, or shared value initiatives that inspire individuals to make a difference. 

4. Balance support and challenge: Provide autonomy, empowerment, and opportunities for learning and growth. Set high expectations while acknowledging that support may look different for each person. Consider their strengths, energy, and contributions. Offer knowledge acquisition and new experiences to help them develop their skills. People want to evolve and grow, so empower them to make decisions and take ownership while ensuring they feel comfortable asking for support or guidance. 

5. Provide feedback and recognition: Foster an open environment where sharing and receiving feedback in all directions is safe. This builds trust, transparency, and facilitates growth and improvement. Recognize individuals’ efforts, contributions, values, and progress toward goals. Highlight their positive impact on others, the team, projects, and goals to create a sense of meaning. 

6. Model wellbeing and a commitment to a ‘whole’ life: Encourage a blend of different spheres of life instead of viewing them as conflicting and requiring compromise. Focus on self, friends and family, professional roles, the broader work environment, community, and money. The right blend varies for each person and changes with different life stages. However, what holds true for everyone is the need to infuse their best selves into the experiences and relationships that matter most to them at any given time. As a leader, you should: i) determine what this for you, and model it openly; ii) facilitate conversations with your team to help them find their best-self intentions; iii) encourage your team members to invest in their own best-selves. 

7. Promote and align purpose: Purpose is foundational to wellbeing, engagement, and performance. Align individuals’ contributions with the organization’s purpose or mission to demonstrate how they make a difference beyond the bottom line. Moreover, understand their personal values, passions, and desired impact and align their energy to contribute in ways that bring their aspirations to life while advancing organizational objectives. People want to make a difference, so show them how and encourage them to do more. 

Meaningful experiences and relationships are the essence of a fulfilling life and work. Embrace them, encourage them, and witness the thriving of your people and teams as a result. 

To learn more how we can help you and your people find meaning at work, click here.