We sat down with Clay Routledge, a leading expert in existential psychology who examines how the human need for meaning influences, and is influenced by life experiences, goals, entrepreneurship, and work.
First, what is an existential psychologist and why is your field of study important?
An existential psychologist is a psychologist who focuses on the human capacity to ask big questions about our existence: why am I here, what happens after I die—and is there any meaning greater than my brief moment on this planet? A lot of the creative and entrepreneurial projects human beings undertake won’t be complete in a single lifetime. Knowing what inspires people, what motivates them, and ultimately what makes them pursue long-term goals over short-term wants will help us understand how to continue to make progress, and how to speed it up.
Is finding meaning in our work important for personal happiness?
Meaningful work is important for personal happiness, but it is also critical for broader human flourishing. Meaning motivates people. It pushes people outward and encourages them to be more productive. Meaning also inspires hope. When people are hopeful, they are more likely to want to do things that hasten progress—even if it means sacrifice.
We have to be careful, though. The effort to talk about meaning in work sometimes has been used to demean certain types of work. There is a belief—an incorrect one—that not all jobs provide meaning, especially if they aren’t professional-class jobs. Meaning is “I matter. I’m making a significant contribution. I’m needed.” You can have that feeling whether you’re the doctor or the janitor at a hospital as long as you feel you’re a valued member of the treatment team. We’ll make more progress when we recognize the world is made up of different types of people with different talents. We need to encourage people to view themselves as having the personal agency needed to live meaningful lives and make meaningful contributions to their families, their communities, and the world.
What are you studying currently?
Progress is powered by human beings, but there isn’t a lot of psychological research within the discipline of progress studies. I’m trying to contribute to the discipline of progress studies, and broaden the field of positive psychology. Historically, social psychology focused on negative behavior. But people don’t just do bad things. In the 1980s, we saw a move toward positive psychology, or studying why people do good things. Positive psychology largely is focused on the individual—what makes me successful, happy, or creative? I aim to build on that by studying what makes society successful and how individual human beings contribute to that success. I want to know what makes people more likely to go out in the world and create things that don’t just contribute to their own well-being, but that contribute to humankind.
How are a person’s feelings about society connected to their willingness to make sacrifices and pursue goals?
First, we need to make a distinction between feelings about our own lives—inward well-being—and feelings about the world, or outward well-being. Surveys reveal people are largely happy with their own lives and that, across different groups, the majority of Americans believe they have achieved the American Dream or on their way to achieving it. I’ve surveyed graduating college seniors and found 80 percent are optimistic about their own futures. But rates of anxiety are rising, and when we examine how people feel about the direction of the country we see very low rates of satisfaction.
To continue to tackle society’s challenges, we need people to be able to see a positive future for both themselves and society. People will be less likely to pursue bold goals, innovate, or start a business if they have a pessimistic view of the world. In our study of college seniors, we found the majority are not optimistic about solving climate change, political polarization, or poverty. If you feel good about yourself, you’re going to invest in yourself. But if you feel good about yourself and not the direction of the country, you’re going to turn inward and focus more narrowly on what benefits you.
Routledge is founder of Psychology of Progress at North Dakota State University’s Challey Institute, a project to help individuals and organizations understand and apply psychological science to promote progress and flourishing. Routledge also is a senior research fellow at The Archbridge Institute and editor of Profectus.
This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Transformation. In this series, we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on the intersection of work and learning.