The Science Behind Returning to Work with Less Dread

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Work is love made visible.

Kahlil Gibran

The Anxiety of Going Back to Work

One of the worst feelings in life is being on the last day of your weekend, sick leave, vacation, or sabbatical, and coming to terms with returning to work – especially work that you don’t love. We all want to return to work with less dread.

From what I can recall, it was pure misery returning to the drudgery.

This is one of the reasons many people want to “find their purpose” and “what they’re meant to do,” so that they never have to “work” a day in their life doing what they enjoy.

Well, this article isn’t to help you find your purpose (you can drop me a note if you want to talk about that). 

This article is to talk about the science behind why finding your purpose, or at least something that has meaning for you, makes returning to work less miserable and maybe even enjoyable for some.

Nothing’s as Good as Finding Your Purpose

Everyone’s been talking about finding their purpose since forever. It seems to have increased in popularity and evolved in the last 20 years, even leaking into corporate-speak. “Find your PASSION”, “DON’T find your passion – find your PURPOSE”, “DON’T find your purpose – create your purpose.”  “Forget all of that and just focus on doing MEANINGFUL work.” God, it’s confusing as heck. 

Doing work that you care about and that energizes you is super important and relevant, no matter what you prefer to call it. For the sake of consistency, let’s call it “purpose” for now. 

Everyone has something that connects them to something larger than themselves. This is the thing that makes you feel expansive, connected, energized, in the flow, and where time disappears into the background and becomes irrelevant.

This is the thing that you’d gladly do without external recognition because you feel rewarded internally. This is the thing that when you’re not doing, you feel incomplete, less like yourself. It’s what you think and dream about. It’s what you obsess over. It’s the thing that you know you were created to do.

If you already know your life purpose – celebrate because it’s one of the most gratifying feelings on earth, and in a minute you’ll learn why.

If you know your life purpose but aren’t taking action on it – the following might interest you and explain why your work feels like misery and any thought of returning to work is pure dread. 

If you’re clueless about your life purpose but want to identify it – you’ll be comforted to know that your brain wants the same for you and will help you find it. 

And for those of you who really don’t know one way or the other, you might find it interesting that incorporating more play, humor, and enjoyment in your life could be just as good as finding your life purpose. 

Just kidding – nothing’s as good as actually finding your life purpose, but it’s probably the next best thing.

You’re Built to Find Your Life Purpose

Studies show that when we do anything in our day – open the blinds, make coffee, fire up the laptop – we release a little bit of noradrenaline. The purpose of noradrenaline is to drive us into action. However, with each action throughout the day, we build up noradrenaline, which has a stress effect on us. This explains why typically after a long day, you’ll feel drained, exhausted, and lose your ability to focus compared to earlier in the day. 

What counteracts noradrenaline, fatigue, and stress is dopamine. Dopamine is neuro energy. When it’s released, we feel awesome and lit up. Research has shown that acts such as playing, humor, music, and even teamwork all release dopamine, according to Dr. Huberman, neuroscientist, and professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Side note, we also get a hit of dopamine when we engage in any pleasurable activity, such as food, sex, and drugs.

Dopamine rewards our brain and sets a focus on getting more of that thing that we just did. 

Building on this, researchers found that we quit when certain cells hit a certain threshold of noradrenaline. This is when our brain says, “I quit.” Dr. Huberman explains that when our brain says “I quit,” it’s because there’s a lack of neuro fuel… dopamine pushes noradrenaline back in the brainstem and allows us to move forward.” For anyone that’s ever experienced a second wind after a good laugh, pushed through a tough workout with some good beats, or lost track of time while having fun, you’ve experienced neuro fuel firsthand. 

But here’s what you came for… interestingly, researchers found that dopamine is also released in our brains whenever we think we’re on “the right path,” according to Dr. Huberman. The right path could be in work, in life, in our relationships, in our journey, at this moment – however we define the “right path,” our brain’s going to reward us with dopamine when we’re actively engaged with it.

How do we use this to help us return to work with less dread?

Your Brain Rewards You When You’re on the Right Path

Drawing from research, we may all want to aspire to be on “the right path” for a few reasons:

  1. Our brain will reward us with more neuro-fuel, making us more energized and focused
  2. Increased neuro-fuel will decrease stress and fatigue and increase pleasure and energy
  3. We will experience neuro-advantage, increasing our ability and endurance 

The first two points are the ones to pay attention to when it comes to reducing your misery and dread when returning to work.

If your work is tied to your purpose, you will naturally feel awesome when you’re working. This is the state that people describe when they don’t experience work as “work.” Instead, time flies – it’s pleasurable, fun, energizing, motivating, and inspiring.

Returning to this state from your vacation ain’t all that bad.

However, if you don’t see your work as “the right path,” then you’re returning from vacation to stress, fatigue, strain, and pain. That’s a whole lotta misery. Of course, every part of your cells will protest!

It’s no wonder we return to work with dread.

How to Return to Work with Less Dread

1. Find your purpose and you won’t need to work a day in your life

If you do something that you believe to be your “right path,” you’ll be flooded with dopamine, which makes you feel rewarded, energized, and motivated when “working.”

At worst – you won’t feel as stressed about work compared to doing something that lacks meaning. At best – your work will give you pleasure and won’t feel like work.

But not everyone’s so lucky to have a job aligned with their purpose. What if you have to grind it out for a while in a miserable job?

2. Look at your soul-killing job through the lens of a larger purpose

Most of us go through a patch where we believe we have to do things we don’t like until we can do the thing we do like.

What if you have a job that you hate?

If you don’t enjoy your work, identify how your current job can facilitate or lead you to a more meaningful experience. Your work is a means to fulfill a greater purpose in your life.

For example, maybe it’s so you can nurture your family; maybe it’s to acquire a certain experience; maybe it’s to allow you to build a network; maybe it’s to fund your passion project; maybe it’s to support your life while you hone your craft.

When you anchor what you do to something you believe in, your sense of being “on the right path” can be activated, which will give you a renewed sense of drive and motivation.

A footnote here: A patch is called a patch for a reason. This is not a permanent state. You’re constantly growing and progressing, moving closer to spending more time on the things that you believe in and less time on doing the soul-sucking work that’s meant to bridge the transition.

But what if you don’t know what your passion or purpose is? What if you can’t find meaning in any work? What if all of this is confusing you more?

3. Pay attention to what energizes you

If you’re still looking for your purpose, one way to get closer to identifying it is to be less in your head and more in your body.

Drop the pressure to “find your purpose” and all the different voices that you might hear associated with that goal.

Finding our purpose isn’t formulaic because there are no rules – no wrong or right answers. It’s personal and the answer can only be found within you.

Whether something is meaningful or meaningless is subjective. Plowing the land could be drudgery for one person and purposeful for the next. This goes for any type of work.

Tap into your inner guidance by noticing your energy when doing different things. What energizes you versus depletes your energy? Go in the direction of what lights you up. Do more of it. See what happens. You can use this compass to guide you toward the direction of your purpose, or at the very least guide you away from what’s not your purpose.

You’re Too Important to Not Be on the Right Path

If you believe that there’s a reason for your existence, you’ve got to believe that what you do with your time on earth matters.

We spend most of our lives working. And I believe that you’re here to offer something really special that only you can provide. Because in the history of the universe, there’s only one of you – with your soul, talent, and unique experiences and perspective.

But that’s my belief. No one can convince you one way or the other – that’s a call only you can make.

When I came across this research presented by Dr. Huberman, I found it comforting to know that our brain is built to reward us when we find our life purpose. Whether we call it “the right path,” “passion,” “meaning,” or “impact,” we’re coded to want it, like it, and look for it.

And conversely, we’re coded to not want the meaningless, mundane, and drudgery.

Sometimes we humans run out of faith to believe in the unseen. And in those moments, the science that’s available to us at the moment seems to give us something concrete to hold onto to help bridge the transition to growth.

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