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TED Talks: What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work? by Dan Ariely


Do you know what makes you feel good about your work? Is it the acknowledgement, a hefty compensation, or simply the satisfaction of doing a good job? According to an experiment involving Legos and Bionicles (yes, the awesome robots!), finding even the tiniest bit of meaning in our work is essential to our happiness.

what makes us feel good about our work dan ariely

(Photo Credit: pasukaru76/Flickr)

Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, conducted a study in which participants were paid meagerly to build Bionicles (robots) made out of Legos. In one form of the experiment, the completed Bionicles were placed underneath a desk after the members turned them in to the experimenter, who then asked them whether they cared to build another Bionicle for lesser money (thirty cents cheaper each time). In a second version of the study, the experimenter destroyed the completed Bionicle in front of the participant and also asked if he would like to build another robot for a lesser amount of money (again, for thirty cents less than the previous completed Lego robot). Below is a summary of what the study revealed:

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Meaningful Condition: Bionicles placed under table after completion.

– “People understand that meaning is important, they just don’t understand the magnitude of the importance, the extent to which it’s important.”

Correlation: By acknowledging people’s efforts, you automatically improve their motivations.

– People want to find purpose in their work in order for it to feel “worth it,” whether their work is implemented or not.

– 11 Bionicles were built by participants.

– Participants found that the small meaning in building the Bionicle made a difference in their decision to continue building.

– The number of Bionicles built had a positive correlation to the participants’ love for Legos.

Sisyphic Condition: Bionicles destroyed upon completion.

– Sisyphus’ punishment from the gods was to push the same huge bolder up a hill and it rolling over him just before he reached the top of the hill.

Correlation: Represents the essence of doing futile work.

– There is something about cyclical or repetitious work that demotivates us.

– Bionicles were built by participants.

– Participants found that when the joy was eliminated, the work was not worth it.

The number of Bionicles built had zero correlation to the participants’ love for Legos. Hypothesis: the participants felt as though the joy was eliminated by breaking their “work” in front of them.

The study concluded that people from the “Meaningful Condition” group made more Bionicles because they:

1. Cared about reaching the end.

2. Cared about the fight.

3. Cared about the challenge.

Ariely goes on to state that, “[I]f you understood how important meaning is, then you would figure out that it’s actually important to spend some time, energy, and effort in getting people to care more about what they’re doing.” So, as professionals, if you are able to find purpose in your everyday labor, then it’s highly likely that you care more about your work than those that lack that purpose.

The “IKEA effect,” which is another concept that Ariely touches on in his TED Talk, is the idea that encouraging people to work harder helps them find a higher level of enjoyment in their work. Ariely uses the analogy of a person buying a piece of furniture from IKEA and having to build it with the inadequate instructions that come in the box, which typically results in frustration and a few “uh-ohs” along the way. However, according to the study’s findings, that person will, most likely, find more enjoyment (or satisfaction) from that self-constructed piece of IKEA furniture than a piece that came fully assembled from another store, because this person cared about reaching the end, about the fight, and about the challenge.

We live in a “knowledge economy” where meaning is more important than efficiency, and as Ariely proposes, “I think as we move to situations in which people have to decide on their own about how much effort, attention, caring, how connected they feel to [work].”

Typically, work is associated with compensation and motivation, but it is really so much more than that — it’s about “meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc.,” as Ariel points out. What it all boils down to is that we — as professionals, employees, business owners, and individuals — all need to find our “meaning” behind what motivates us and gives us a sense of satisfaction, and then we have to apply that knowledge to our careers.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you find meaning in your everyday work? If so, share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments section below.

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