Compared to people who work in the private sector, workers at nonprofit organizations tend to be much happier with their lives and more satisfied with their jobs, according to a new study conducted by Martin Binder of Bard College and published in the Journal of Economic Psychology.
If this finding isn’t too surprising, that’s because we intuitively recognize what academic research has confirmed: people who find meaning in their work are happier, as well as more motivated and persistent. Such meaning derives most powerfully from a sense that one is helping other people. Interestingly, research also shows that employees in all kinds of fields can be helped to see that their work contributes to others’ welfare.
Consider a 2008 study led by Wharton professor Adam Grant (author of the wonderful books Give and Take and Originals). Writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Grant and his coauthors note:
“Although many employees perform jobs that are high in task significance—they protect and promote the health, safety, and well-being of other people—they are often distanced from information about how these efforts make a difference.”
Grant took steps to close this distance for a group of fundraising callers: people who make calls soliciting contributions to a university. He had a group of fundraisers read two essays written by scholarship students about how the job done by the fundraisers had made a difference in their lives. For example, one scholarship recipient wrote about how the scholarship had enabled him to pursue education in engineering and neuroscience and participate in a wide range of extracurricular activities; the second scholarship recipient wrote about how the scholarship had enabled her to attend school out of state and build connections with fellow scholarship students. Meanwhile, Grant had a second group of fundraisers read essays by former colleagues who wrote about the job had made a difference in their own careers.
One month later, the fundraisers who read about how their work was helping others increased significantly the number of weekly pledges they earned and the amount of weekly donation money they raised. The fundraisers who read about how their work might help people like themselves did not change on these measures of performance.
There are three additional points I’d like to make here.
One is that other research by Grant has found that actually meeting and talking to the beneficiaries of one’s work may have an even greater impact on one’s performance.
Two is that while managers might want to think about sharing such “task significance” stories with their employees, employees themselves could also “seek out and distribute task significance stories” to each other, as Grant notes.
And three is a point made by Grant about “the practical value of harnessing stories as resources for changing, as well as understanding, employees’ experiences.” That is, narratives can be used not only as an “interpretive lens,” but as a “corrective lens”—correcting employees’ assumption that their work doesn’t have meaning or doesn’t help other people.
This article originally appeared on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog.