Moments of meaningfulness and meaninglessness: a qualitative inquiry into affective eudaimonia at work

Suvi Jonna Martikainen, Laura Kudrna, Paul Dolan

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Meaningful work (MW) is an important topic in psychological and organizational research with theoretical and practical implications. Many prior studies have focused on operationalizing MW and distinguish between the attributes of a job that make it meaningful, such as task variety or significance, and the affective experience of meaning during work, such as the feeling that what one does at work is meaningful. However, most empirical research focuses on the former definition and utilizes quantitative scales with deductive questions that omit what people find important in their experiences. To address this, we conduct a qualitative investigation of psychological narratives focusing in-depth on the quality and content of feelings of meaningfulness and meaninglessness during experiences at work—crucially, without any framing around task attributes. We introduce the term affective eudaimonia to describe these experiences. Overall, our results corroborate many existing thematic findings in the MW literature, such as the importance of connecting and contributing to others and avoiding confinement. We also offer new findings: Although the way that people give language to meaningless narratives is more descriptive, vivid, and experiential in tone than meaningful narratives, meaningless narratives are also more structurally static and constrained. We use these results to inform practical suggestions to promote day-to-day experiences of meaning at work and provide a basis for further academic discussion.
Original languageEnglish
JournalGroup and Organization Management
Early online date1 Dec 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Dr. Clare Rawdin and Professor Helinä Melkas for their comments and suggestions. Martikainen wishes to express her thanks for the financial support of the Foundation of Economic Education and the Finnish cultural Foundation. Dolan gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Templeton Foundation, grant number 1-SPS-C532—Templeton/St Louis Happiness Project. Kudrna was partially supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Centre (ARC) West Midlands, grant number NIHR200165. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • affective experience
  • eudaimonia
  • meaningful work
  • meaningless work
  • narrative inquiry
  • qualitative investigation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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