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Health, Liminality, Uncategorized

What Is Work?

Last week, a friend shared this video of Michael Norton explaining Norton’s research which attemped to show that one could actually buy happiness…if we spend it on someone other than ourselves.  Instead of buying more stuff for ourselves, apparently, we feel happier when doing something for someone else.

It led me to think back to a previous conversation that I had with another friend of mine about “what is work?”

Now amidst the backdrop of high global unemployment and a lack of job opportunities, it would appear that this question is frivolous.  And in many ways it is.  Because for the majority of people in the world, they would answer that we work in order to “make a living.”  That’s what my friend answered. Of course, the follow up question is what is “making a living?”  And that’s where things get slightly more problematic because it is an answer which is somewhat dependent on the person answering.  To be fair, it’s also a very privileged question.  Because for most, making a living is just that – making enough to live.  It is providing the basic needs, the essentials, for yourself and your family.

But for the majority of people that I know, including myself, that is not the case.  In fact, the term should probably be changed to “making a luxury” because we have clearly passed the threshold of basic needs, so therefore, most everything we work for is for the purpose of “luxuries.”  That is not to criticize the pursuit of luxuries, but just to put into context how the definition or work and what we are working for changes for different people.

As a result of the fact that many of us are working in order to “make a luxury,” it is very easy to hear people say things like, “pursue your dreams,” “do what you love” and “find work that is fulfilling.”   That in and of itself is a luxury that is not available to most people.  And yet, I agree completely that, for those lucky few that can, this is advice that should be taken to heart.

I’ve felt for a long time that fulfilling work is working on behalf of others.  I’ve also felt that because there are so few people that can, there is almost an obligation by those that can, to work in order to improve our communities and societies.  In fact, one of my favorite reads so far this year was the commencement speech by Michael Lewis (full transcript here) in which he says:

Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

But beyond the idea that those of us who are lucky “owe a debt to the unlucky,” it seems like if it is true that spending money on others increases one’s own happiness, shouldn’t committing to work for others do the same?  Is part of the reason that so many of us that work for luxuries do not seem to be pleased in life despite the stuff we have is because we are working for ourselves and not to help others?  Are we actually harming ourselves by working at things that may utilize our talents and which we can make a lot of money doing, but which have little to no social utility or benefit?

Personally, I can attest that the answers to those questions, for myself, are yes, yes and yes.  While my hypocritical moments remain and I surely am no Mother Theresa who has given up all worldly possessions in the service of others, I’ve found that as I have increased my pursuit of work that helps others and decreased the work that I’ve done to “make a luxury,” I’ve become increasingly happier and content.  It’s certainly not all smiles and giggles everyday, and I periodically miss certain elements of my past lifestyle, but I have no regrets.

I realize that my experience doesn’t necessarily fit for everyone, but I firmly believe that those of us who have the choice are supremely lucky. And, ironically, we could be even luckier than we already are if our work served the unlucky more and ourselves less….



2 thoughts on “What Is Work?

  1. You make a fine basic point as far as it goes, but the next question might be “what is the dividing line between ‘making a luxury’ and ‘work that helps others'”? Does starting or running a business help others? Presumably, the answer would depend on what kind of business. In terms of whether it makes you happy, maybe the only important question is whether you believe you are helpings others. If so, I imagine that a great deal of those who you might describe as “making a luxury” actually believe they are helping others. We regularly hear wall street investors and bankers explaining why the whole country’s well-being depends on them! finally, is it possible to do work that helps individuals (including unlucky ones) but causes a detriment to society? Conservatives and libertarians will argue that we cause some of the greatest harm when we claim to be helping.

    Posted by JM | June 18, 2012, 4:29 pm
    • I think the question you ask is perhaps a little too black and white. Making a luxury and helping others are not mutually exclusive. I would say that it’s a spectrum and the more that you work to help others, the happier you may be. But I think I agree with you re: “the only important question is whether you believe you are helpings others.” And while we can fool ourselves to some extent, and others to a greater extent, I think we all know more or less where we land on that spectrum.

      Re: libertarians…that’s when you have to define what “help” is. That’s such a key point, I think I’ll have to answer that one in a follow up…

      Posted by chico | June 18, 2012, 6:12 pm

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