For this piece, I’d like to tackle on the subject of WORK or human labor, and on which I’d touch on two aspects – finding happiness or the right work-life balance, and the “trap of always wanting more.”
There’s no denying, the devastating pandemic crisis which gave rise to the alternative mode of working from home have unavoidably pushed workers to reflect or dwell over the nature of work, its meaning and purpose, and how these affect their quality of life. Apparently, as some studies suggest, the so called “great resignation,” wherein workers are leaving their employers in record numbers in 2021, has been precipitated by these reflections.
Ergo, let’s dwell upon these reflections. What then is the nature, meaning, purpose, and dignity of work?
Culled from an old textbook (“Social Philosophy in the Philippine Context” by Pedro V. Salgado, O.P.) which I fondly used many years back when I was teaching, I find this meaning and nature of work timeless and appropriate:
“Work is a human activity that transforms nature for the purpose of getting utility there from. Work is not purely spiritual activity, nor is it purely a material one. Work is characteristic of neither angels nor beasts, but of beings whose activity flows from both the spirit and the body to external reality. When predominance is on the side of the spirit, it is called intellectual work; when the body prevails, people call it manual labor.”
What about the dignity of work? There have been shifting perspectives on this: from the ancient Greeks and Romans who regarded manual work fit only for slaves; to modern liberalism which degraded work by considering it merely as a sort of merchandise, to be paid high or low, depending on the fluctuations of the market; and even to Marxism – which on one hand dignified work as it educates man, enriches matter, and conquers nature – but on the other hand degraded work by transferring its fruits from the individual to the collectivity, thus alienating the individual from the fruits of his work.
But, reckoning on what I have taught to my students many years ago, the dignity of work is best upheld (according to the teachings of the Church) based on 5 basic reasons: 1) it is the expression of man’s personality; 2) it gives humans a participation of the creative power of God; 3) it supplies humans their daily sustenance and insures their perfection; 4) it forms the basis of social life; and 5) it enjoys mystic dimensions.
Now, let’s narrow down our discussion to two exigent aspects related to work: first, how can we find happiness or the right work-life balance in our work; second, how to get rid of the “trap of wanting more” and find joy in our work.
On the first aspect, it is worth underscoring that aiming for happiness or striking the right work-life balance isn’t about tinkering with what, where, or how we work – but, more importantly, with “why” we work, or understanding the sources of our happiness.
In other words, hence, finding happiness in our work entails finding ourselves first – because if we do not find ourselves in what we do, neither can we find happiness too. The right path therefore is from “who we are” to “what we do for work”, not the other way around – and, in this way, we’ll be able to reckon “why” we work. We are not defined by our work, by our position, -- and, much more, not by our possessions.
According to psychologists, there are two kinds of happiness that come into play in our work: one is eudaimonic happiness, and the other one is hedonic happiness.
Eudaimonic (from Greek “eudaimonia”, which means “good spirit”, happiness, or well-being) happiness in work refers to the sense of satisfaction for having accomplished a task or realizing our potential. Hedonic happiness, on the other hand, is the sense of leisure, cheerfulness, and scarcity (if not, absence) of stress, pressure, or effort in work.
Psychologists suggest that, between eudaimonic happiness and hedonic happiness, you cannot choose one and disregard the other. The happiness or satisfaction that one gets from exerting an effort to accomplish a task cannot simply be overlooked in favor of leisure or “effortless” time at work. You cannot have all-work all the time, in as much as you cannot have also all-play all the time.
Finding happiness in work, therefore, calls for striking a good balance between eudaimonic happiness and hedonic happiness, between sense of accomplishment or work satisfaction and leisure, between striving to realize your potential and whiling away effortless time. In short, finding happiness in work is integrating your personal meaning and purpose to the significance and meaning of your work.
Let’s go to the second aspect: how to get rid of the “trap of wanting more” and find joy in our work.
Experts believe that, from an evolutionary standpoint, we are wired to always look into the future and anticipate what can go wrong. In addition, we are not wired to be satisfied with what we have. Our instinct is to want more.
This can also be true in our striving for what we want in our work. In the process, we acquire the anxiety about making more money, aspiring for higher positions, upgrading our homes, and pleasing as many people as possible.
The “trap with always wanting more” is that we may forget to appreciate what we already have. We become fixated on future aspirations that we may take for granted our current blessings, like our family, friends, and health.
Worse, we may start to undermine the very achievements we worked so hard to attain. I have seen how some of my touted “successful” friends who, having sacrificed years of their life to achieve a goal, have eventually found their professional achievements devoid of meaning and purpose.
So, how do we get rid of the trap of wanting more and instead find joy as we strive in our work goals?
Practicing psychiatrist Dr. Dimitrios Tsatiris, in his article “How To Be Happy With Less” (psychologytoday.com), offers the following tips:
1. Know where to set the bar. Achieving future monetary or professional goals does not guarantee happiness. Have realistic expectations of how future pursuits will impact your life. As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Wealth is like seawater – the more we drink, the thirstier we become; and the same is true of fame.”
2. Remain whole. Remember that your professional identity is only one part of who you are. You also hold other roles – parent, spouse, sibling, child, or someone’s best friend. Maintain a broad perspective of who you are by investing in your different roles.
3. Press the brakes. Learn to go against the societal pressures of constantly chasing more by appreciating the small things (sharing a laugh with a loved one, or enjoying a few minutes of silence – if not, prayer – at the end of a hectic day) that truly make life meaningful.
Lastly, in closing, let me share these beautiful lines from an ex-seminarian friend, Santi Getalado:
“Do not just work for a living, work for a meaningful life. Do not just work for success, work for significance in what you do. Do not just work for results, work for affirmative relationships that bring positive results. You don’t need to look for friends, just keep on helping people to the best you can, and you will have friends. You don’t need to look for love, just try your best to be lovable all the time. You don’t need to look for happiness from other people, just try to make others happy and you will be truly happy.”