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Making Money: Purpose Equals Profit (and Happiness)

This is a three part blog series that focuses on how people 1) should seek purpose when earning money, 2) spend money in ways that don’t always benefit them (or others), and 3) can choose to improve the way they invest their money.

You do three things with money.

  1. You make it (most people work while awake)
  2. You spend it (splurge!)
  3. You save and invest it (to splurge when you’re old)

Let’s start with making money. Yes, you probably sit in an office staring at a computer screen, but hopefully, your job provides you with a sense of meaning and purpose. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, shows as of May 2013, only 48.5% of Americans are satisfied with their work. While this is a slight improvement since 2011, it seems strange that most Americans spend most of their daytime hours doing things that don’t make them satisfied.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown that people often think they will be happier and more satisfied working a job with less meaning that pays more than an equivalent job that is meaningful and pays less. However, when surveyed about their happiness, the results show that people tend to undervalue the contribution of meaning and purpose to their own actual happiness. Companies also tend to undervalue the importance of communicating the significance of their work to their employees.

Here is the good news! Ariely’s studies have shown that workers who do find meaning in their work are actually much more productive, so companies should do everything they can to make that meaning clear. Often, just creating “flatter” organizations where every employee feels some level of ownership in decision making, can lead to higher employee loyalty, customer satisfaction, and innovation.

In one of his Ted talks Ariely states the following:

“Now we are in the knowledge economy. Is efficiency more important than meaning? I think the answer is no….People have to decide on their own how much effort they should provide…When we think about labor, we think of motivation and payment as the same thing, but in reality we should add other things…meaning, creation, challenge, ownership, identity, and pride…If we added all these things and thought about them… we could get people to be more productive and happier.”

This might explain why socially responsible B Corporations have been growing so much faster than their competitors.  B Corps – like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, and Sungevity – are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. As a result, these employees likely feel a shared sense of meaning while creating progress for humanity.

In her book Evolve!, Rosabeth Kanter identified three primary sources of motivation in high innovation companies: mastery, membership, and meaning.  Her Harvard Business School blog – The Happiest People Pursue the Most Difficult Problems  – highlights the amazing story of how Daimler Benz improved the productivity and quality of his car manufacturing plant when the workers learned they would be making a car for Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. Her studies “urge that everyone regardless of their work situation, have a sense of responsibility for at least one aspect of changing the world.”

When faced with challenging meaningful problems to solve, you will focus more since personal attachment creates care and drive. Odds are you’ll be happier and more productive at work if you feel this sense of purpose, and there’s a good chance you’ll make more money too.


Tim is a solar consultant with Sungevity, one of the largest solar developers in the US. Tim previously worked GreenOrder/Clean Tech Group and the United Nations Environment Programme. He graduated from Dartmouth where he studied economics and environmental studies. Tim enjoys snowboarding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and surfing.