In the new generation of job seekers, there seems to be a strong importance placed on finding meaningful work. Personal development manuals and motivational speakers stress the idea of following one’s passion, encouraging unhappy workers to consider changing careers. But what if one’s passion is unemployable, or one can’t afford to give up a stable career that pays the bills? Is all of this talk of meaningful work idealistic?
In a Forbes article titled,“Why Work Does NOT Have To Be Fulfilling” the author makes a strong case against these new ideas about work, suggesting the “real” world does not work this way – everyone can’t have meaningful work, and we should stop looking for fulfillment in order to feel satisfied with our position, pursuing meaningful hobbies on our spare time. [There are actually psychological benefits to accepting work without constantly seeking enjoyment – I discuss this in my post on The Happiness Trap.]
But should we accept our lot, suck it up, and get back to work?
I argue that, given our current social circumstances, this is practical for most people, but it does not need to be the case for two reasons: 1) Individuals who are willing to put in the intense amount of action required to turn their passions into marketable skills or products can find meaningful work, and 2) we should not be politically complacent to structural arrangements that favor the freedom of capital over the health of workers.
The problem with the Forbes article is that it equates meaningful work with enjoyment. Meaningful work does not need to be enjoyable. Meaningful work CAN be enjoyable, but it will most likely require a great deal of suffering. This is not a bad thing. So long as this suffering has a meaning behind it, the endeavor becomes a labor of love. See my post on a radical approach to mental health for an elaboration on this particular concept of love, and my post on finding meaning and purpose for more on the idea of meaningful suffering.
From the position of the individual, following a passion means you are going to need to temporarily give up comfort and enjoyment to take ‘massive action’ (a great concept by Tony Robbins). This requires full immersion in whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, to the degree of obsession. Once the endeavor starts gaining traction, work-life balance is of course important. Comfort is tempting, but not taking massive action will place one in the position of settling for mediocre work. Erich Fromm talks about this drive to conform in his book Escape From Freedom. Those who embrace the suffering required to follow their passion have a good shot a attaining fulfilling work, but they should not expect easy enjoyment.
So what makes work fulfilling? I argue work can be fulfilling base on two characteristics:
1) the task is psychologically satisfying, and 2) the social arrangement is existentially satisfying.
Psychologically satisfying tasks produce a ’flow state’ in individuals. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist who studies flow states, identifies six characteristics that compose the flow state:
intense and focused concentration on the present moment
merging of action and awareness
a loss of reflective self-consciousness
a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
one’s subjective experience of time is altered
experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding
Achieving the flow state requires the position to have clear and specific goals, there must be immediate feedback on the work, and the work must be challenging, yet not beyond the skill capacity of the individual.
Fulfilling work is not only good for the individual, but it is also good for organizational flourishing, and ultimately, for the health of a society as a whole. In Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society, he argues that modern ‘organic solidarity’ maintains healthy social functioning. Like the organs in the human body working together for the common purpose of maintaining life, the various social institutions must have a function that is specific and complimentary to the other institutions. The individual gains a sense of collective purpose when working within their respective role, but problems arise when that role becomes so specialized that it no longer gives the feeling of connection to the collective.
Durkheim’s functional perspective builds on Marx’s theory of workers’ alienation. Although Marx believed all capitalist working conditions were alienating, Durkheim allowed for the possibility of fulfilling professional relations in a capitalist context, so long as the workers are successfully integrated into a functional corporate body regulated by a common social purpose. For Durkheim, It is this fundamental connection to society that sustains the individuals sense of well-being. In a state of too high a degree of specialization to feel any connection to society, or in a state of egoistic anarchy, Durkheim states that the pleasure of common association disintegrates into suffering produced by disorder and a feeling of constant war among individuals in competition with one another.
Although up until this point, I have been discussing ‘work’ in the conventional sense of the public sector. Fulfilling roles can also come in the form of private work within the family. This form of work can fulfill the two requirements I laid out above: 1) the task is psychologically satisfying, and 2) the social arrangement is existentially satisfying. Traditional domestic duties such as cooking can fulfill the flow state and meaning can be derived from a feeling of integration into the communal life of the family.
Returning to the original question, ‘should work be fulfilling?’ My answer is yes. Although I think it should be fulfilling, I am aware that this is not often the case since it requires a massive amount of action to cultivate your passions into marketable skills, and the current social system makes it very difficult to step outside the current arrangement of social roles. But this is not an excuse to give up and settle for what might be called the harsh reality of the “real” world. Individuals can take action, embrace the suffering of meaningful work, not expecting simple enjoyment. Politically, we must advocate for better social arrangements that foster common purpose in Durkheim’s sense, and social scientists must continue the work of studying how social arrangements influence the mental health of individuals and the health of society as a whole.
Take the ‘happiness at work survey’ for a scientifically backed diagnosis of your own position, or the state of your organization as a whole.