A few years ago, a colleague at Harvard, Professor Teresa Amabile, started an ambitious three-year study of American professionals at work. She tracked 238 subjects, each of whom was engaged in a project with a definite start and end date. Every day, Amabile sent her subjects an email asking them to describe their mood, their motivation, and the quality of their work. She also asked them to identify one event that stood out to them each day. By the end of her study, Amabile had collected nearly 12,000 individual responses.

When Amabile analyzed the data, she came to a clear conclusion about one key factor: workers are happiest—and most motivated—when they feel that they accomplish something meaningful at work. These accomplishments ...

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