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…if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment…all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.
Consistent purpose is not enough to make life happy, but it is an almost indispensable condition of happy life. And consistent purpose embodies itself mainly in work.
Necessity and Meaning
Why is meaning important? What’s wrong with simply getting paid to support a family and to provide your children with a good education? Isn’t such an approach sufficiently meaningful?
Necessity – i.e., the felt need to survive – is over-emphasized wherever an independent category of “meaningfulness” is not recognized. The dominant perspective on work emphasizes compensation derived from work (i.e., gains extrinsic to the work activity in itself) and is not cognizant of any category of experience – i.e., meaning – that would motivate work activity beyond that which is informed by Necessity. One works only because it is necessary to work; the moment that it is no longer necessary to work in order to survive – e.g., if one wins the lottery – it is assumed that one will quit one’s job and cease working. Meaning is a category of value, according to Susan Wolf, whose “import is far from clear and whose reality might be doubted.”
The Need for Meaning
The above-described approach is problematic because meaning is derived from goods – i.e., supporting oneself and one’s family – that are extrinsic to the work. One might say that there is no purpose to the job itself, insofar as the job has merely instrumental value. The work makes no difference in itself: one could just as well have done any other job.
If we are to experience our work as truly meaningful there must also be something to be found in the job itself, some intrinsic meaning, not merely getting paid. Hannah Arendt observed that work can provide the individual with a “measure of permanence and durability”. In working we seek to leave a mark on the world, a mark that will outlive us. Our perspective on work will ultimately extend beyond this life. We seem to have a need to show that we made some sort of difference. One feels the need to see some point in what one is doing beyond simply surviving: the work must make some sort of difference in order for us to experience it as meaningful.
Unlike Protestants who diligently adhere to the ideas of Luther or Calvin, most of us lack a belief system that guarantees that there is a point to our work. We suffer when our work fails to provide us with much meaning. At other times, our work seems to be immensely meaningful, so meaningful that virtually everything else in our lives fades in comparison, and we then tend to forget that work is only one source of meaning among others. Depending on the extent to which we derive meaning from our work, our experience of work ranges over a continuum from deep personal fulfillment to utter boredom:
(Although) we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make up as our appetite for status and money. It is because we are meaning focused animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi or might quit a job in consumer goods for one in cardiac nursing, aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the finest biscuit. (De Botton)
The value of meaning and meaningfulness is obscured by its tendency to be recognized most acutely when we experience its absence. We discern the importance of meaning most when we are disengaged from our work. Although there are times when our work may feel intensely meaningful, it is when we feel bored and distracted – or when we fail to discern how our work contributes to the development of the kind of world within which we would like to live – that we feel that our work lacks meaning. During these times we are compelled to recognize meaning as a valuable category of experience.
“One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy”
Sisyphus is the archetype of meaningless work: he is condemned to perform a task that is boring, difficult, and futile.
Sisyphus was a clever mortal who avoided work by playing tricks on the Gods. The Gods punished Sisyphus by giving him a task to keep him too busy to think up new tricks. He was told to push a boulder up a hill, but every time he almost reached the top, the boulder slipped from his hands and rolled all the way to the bottom. Sisyphus’ sentence fit the crime: for seeking rewards without work he was sentenced to work without reward.
But Camus imagines Sisyphus feeling fulfilled by his activity:
At the very end of his long effort…the purpose (of his work) is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward the lower world whence he will have to push it up again…He goes back down to the plain…At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks…he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock…
Sisyphus’s work is meaningful because the hero is completely conscious of his situation.
Where would his torture be if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? … Sisyphus…knows the full extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn…crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.
All Sisyphus’ silent joy in contained (in the fact that his fate belongs to him). … (He) says “yes” and his effort will henceforth be unceasing…
The work is motivated by Sisyphus’ consciousness of the parameters that govern his condition. When Sisyphus returns to his rock and contemplates that series of actions which becomes his fate, “he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling”:
Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. . . The struggle itself towards the height is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
But do crushing truths really perish when they are acknowledged? Is the happiness obtained by Sisyphus by embracing his fate sustainable? Can any boring, difficult and futile work be made meaningful by becoming fully cognizant of a “higher fidelity that negates” forces that compel us to work?
Something is Missing
Even if we imagine Sisyphus happy, the pointlessness of what Sisyphus is doing doesn’t change. Despite Sisyphus’s heroic and resourceful attitude, most will feel that his condition remains far from enviable. People need to feel that that there is some “point” to what they are doing. Even if one were to accept Camus’ interpretation and adopt the attitude towards work that Camus advocates, something desirable about Sisyphus’ condition seems to be missing. Even if one allows for the presence of happiness in Sisyphus, few would elect to engage in the type of labor he is compelled to perform. What is it that’s missing?
“Follow Your Bliss”
If Sisyphus is enjoying his work – and yet we would not choose to trade places with Sisyphus – there must be an objective feature of the work performed by Sisyphus – rather than a subjectively felt experience – that is lacking.
Popular attitudes regarding finding fulfillment at work emphasize the subjective element and assume that the goal of life activities is individual “happiness”. Each individual is urged to find his or her passion and pursue it (i.e., the popular admonition to “follow your bliss” is aligned with this perspective). This advice rests on the plausible notion that doing what one loves doing imparts positive emotions that one would otherwise find difficult to induce.
The incompleteness of the above-described perspective becomes apparent when subjected to scrutiny, however. There are an infinite number of activities one might imagine performing that could conceivably reflect the pursuit of one’s passion but that nevertheless seem to be “missing something”. Activities might be found to be enjoyable and yet not be regarded as genuinely worthwhile. One might love watching goldfish, for example, and be very involved in goldfish observation. The activity of watching goldfish (or any other object) would qualify as fulfilling if the subjective element is considered exclusively. Yet most would consider work that exclusively entails watching goldfish far from “meaningful”. Like Sisyphusian boulder rolling, such work also seems to be “missing something”.
Work Like an Ant
Humans are “ultrasocial” insofar as we closely resemble ants, bees, and termites. Meaning would be more easily achieved if we placed the group rather than the individual at the center of our thinking about fulfilled lives. Work is a social activity insofar as it is an activity which one performs for others. Because we place the individual, rather than the group, at the center of our thinking about what constitutes fulfilled lives, work is devalued. Work is not valued in our society because our society has become ultra-individualistic. There is no concept of the “genuinely worthwhile”, i.e., what is best “from the point of view of the universe.”
Meaningful work is the sort of work that contributes to something “other than oneself.” This view emphasizes the moral dimension of experience. For us to want to trade places with Sisyphus, his work would have to contribute to something beyond his subjective sense that he has achieved heroism by laughing at his situation.
The Second Dimension
When we combine both of the above-described views we get closer to criteria that might characterize meaningful work. Meaningful work:
- Is experienced as fulfilling. One has located one’s “passion” and one is “pursuing” that passion. Such activity pursues “Happiness”. It is to this dimension that one alludes when one recommends that an individual “follow (one’s) bliss”.
- Contributes to or connects positively with something of value that has its source outside of oneself. This aspect alludes to the dimension of “Morality”.
Regardless of how much we might enjoy an activity, many activities do not qualify as meaningful because they do not connect with something of value outside the subject. Neither Sisyphusian stone rolling, ice cream eating, goldfish watching, Sodoku solving or stargazing add value beyond the positive emotion generated by the activity in the subject.
But if Sisyphus were to build a house made of stones at the top of the hill upon which he rolls boulders, then his work would satisfy such criteria. Clarinet playing, basketball playing, and novel writing exemplify work that is performed for reasons that are not exclusively self-referential, as they do not entirely depend upon one’s own interest in them. The activity (and the goal of the activity) in which one is engaged must be assigned a positive value. According to this criterion of meaningfulness, some authority external to the worker (i.e., a music listener, another basketball player, a novel reader – or, in the case of Sisyphus, a person in need of a stone house) could be reasonably imagined to recognize value in the activity.
Something is Still Missing
Yet even if someone is contributing to something of value which has a source outside of oneself, it is still possible to have a sense that one’s work lacks meaning. People may perform valuable work and yet may find it impossible to take pride in – or derive joy from – what they are doing. Although a worker may be aware that what she is doing is valuable, she may reasonably feel that her work lacks something that might be referred to as “meaning”. Sisyphus may be using the boulders rolled to the top of the hill to construct a home, yet he still might find the work dispiriting: he may feel that such work constitutes a poor use of his talents and skills, for example. So meaningfulness is an attribute that our work can have that cannot be reducible to either happiness or morality.
The Missing Ingredient: Reasons of Love
Love has a distinctive and important role in our lives. Its role and reasons cannot necessarily be assimilated to reasons of self-interest or reasons of morality. One may reasonably elect to stay at a job for which one does not derive maximal earning potential and which cannot be justified in terms of “the good of the universe”. The mechanic who chooses to fix motorcycles cannot plausibly claim that he is fulfilling a “moral mission”. Yet it is possible – and not unusual – to derive a profound sense of meaning from the performance of such work. The first two models leave out reasons of love – i.e., reasons that move us to pursue non personal interests about which we are especially passionate.
Writing philosophy, practicing the cello, keeping one’s garden free of weeds, may demand more of one’s time and attention than would be optimal for the point of view of one’s own well-being. In these pursuits there is a perceived or imagined value that lies outside of oneself. It is the value of good philosophy that drives one to write, as it might be the beauty of music that drives one to practice the cello, or the potential garden that moves the gardener to sacrifice ease and exercise discipline in pursuing his goal. (Wolf, page 5).
But it only makes sense to devote significant energy to writing philosophy, playing the cello, or creating a garden if one loves such activity. So there is must be a third element that must be present for us to characterize work as meaningful: not only must the worker find the work fulfilling, and not only must the work connect to something of value outside of the worker, but the worker must actively and productively engage with – i.e., she must “love” – the work. Meaning in work arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and when one is able to do something about or with the object with which one engages.
The three crucial elements that comprise meaningful work are subjective attraction, objective worthiness, and active, productive engagement. To the extent that we fail to recognize and appreciate the legitimacy and value of reasons of love, we misunderstand our values and ourselves and distort our concerns.
Most of the above ideas derive from:
Wolf, Susan. Meaning in Life and Why it Matters. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2010.
Other Major Sources Include:
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press. 1958.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays. Translated from French into English by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books/Random House. Originally published in 1942.
De Botton, Alain. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Pantheon Books, New York. 2009.
Svendsen, Lars. Work. Acumen, Stocksfied, UK. 2008