Meaningful Occupations: What are they and why bother?

group of people in colourful costumes dancing. Costumes are bright pinks, oranges, and creams.

balls of dough next to a rolling pin, on top of rolled out dough

What is meaningful to you? What do you miss from life before COVID-19 or what is “filling you up” in this time? 

For a lot of us, we are missing time with family, friends, and co-workers. Each of us has a hobby, a passion, or some activity that “refills our cup.” For some it is easy to name off – I find an almost unexplainable sense of joy and lose track of time when I go swing dancing. For others it may be tougher to come up with – but there’s always that special something. 

group of people in colourful costumes dancing. Costumes are bright pinks, oranges, and creams.

What is a meaningful occupation? 

In case you missed earlier posts –  occupational therapists define occupation as what fills your time as a human; so a meaningful occupation is  individualized and involves doing in some way. Occupational therapy scholars have much more to say on this and differ on the definition (see Meaningful occupation clarified: Thoughts about the relationship between meaningful and psychologically rewarding occupations for some specifics). I’m going to simplify our definition to engaging in an activity that has significance to the individual or is purposeful and leads to a greater sense of self or well being. This does not always involve a sense of immediate fulfillment or joy but, in the long term, holds meaning for us. An example would be practicing an instrument or working out; initially few of us enjoy the practice but the end product  is (hopefully) worth the effort. 

Young person in a wheelchair washing hands

According to the late Ann Wilcock, (Reflections on doing, being and becoming* – Wilcock – 1999 – Australian Occupational Therapy Journal), “occupation in the natural biological mechanism for health.” Through “doing” we are able to interact with others, have a sense of mastery (think making that perfect sourdough, finally getting all the kids to eat what you made for dinner, or finishing the project you’ve been working on), and learn about ourselves and our world. A number of us are used to having separation in our home vs. “outside life” and find that sense of mastery in one place or the other. For those who work from home (including those doing the work of raising children as their primary job) the need to create time and step back from daily routines to notice mastery is an act of doing in itself. 

hands strumming a ukulele. the person is wearing a black shirt

Our identity as an individual is often highly influenced by society’s focus on how we make a living to the point that we translate our job as our identity. I am an occupational therapist, but I am also a daughter, sister, godmother, fiancé, woman of faith, an aspiring baker and yogi, and the list could go on. We all play many different roles in our life and often have meaningful occupations tucked into each of these. A few individuals who have inspired me in the constant quest for living all these roles and finding what is important include Brene Brown ( https://brenebrown.com/), Brad Montague (http://montagueworkshop.com/hello) and Adriene Mishler (https://yogawithadriene.com/). They have taught me to rearrange priorities, to “find what feels good,” and to believe in “coming into my power” as an individual. Often our meaningful occupations lead us to being with, and “doing” with others. To truly connect with others we have to have a sense of who we are: how do you define yourself? Try and go beyond your job title and, if you need some more structure,  follow the template at the end of the post.  

 

When reflecting on what meaningful occupations you can participate in, be aware of a tendency to either be an overfunctioner or underfunctioner during these stressful times (In Your Relationships With Other People, You’re Either Overfunctioning or Underfunctioning) and come back to the concept of balance. The “doing” of a meditation practice can be a meaningful occupation just as baking or studying for an exam can be. 

person in a white and teal shirt holding a white volleyball in her hands.

It’s normal – particularly in these turbulent times – to feel down and to lack a sense of purpose at times. When we can name and recognize how our meaningful occupations fit into our lives we can use these as tools particularly during tough times. If you’re feeling stuck think back to when you were a kid. What’s one of your fondest memories? What did you enjoy doing? Maybe there’s a way to revamp that activity now. Let’s all take some time today to reflect on the activities and ways to engage that can lead us to growth and a sense of being filled up a little bit more. When we are being filled up we are more available to fill up those around us and the ripple effects are huge! 

 

My name is ___________________. 

 

A few activities that make me feel alive/joy-filled are:  

  • __________________________________

 

  • __________________________________

 

  • __________________________________

 

When I can’t do these, I notice I _________________________________________________. 

 

When this happens I can do a few things to bring peace or joy including: 

  • __________________________________

 

  • __________________________________

 

  • __________________________________

 

My job is usually to _________________ and I am also good at _____________________________, 

 

______________________. 

 

When I am stressed I tend to over/under -function; this looks like 

 

______________________________________ for me. 

 

When I was a kid, I loved to _____________________________________________________

 

 __________________________________________________________. 

 

Let us know your thoughts, if you have questions, or need to troubleshoot some ideas via our anonymous contact box.

 

Author: Emily Polovick

Bio: Emily is an American Occupational Therapist currently working in pediatrics. She finds that the everyday things in life can make a huge difference in creating joy and well-being. She loves connecting with others and finding ways to build each other up through holistic care of the individual and participation in community.

 

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