Our work has a substantial impact upon our lives. More than a means to a pay check, work enables people to exercise skills, earn esteem, and contribute purposefully to communities. Work has a formative influence on our character and intelligence. Work absorbs a significant portion of our waking hours, and what we do all day at work leaves an imprint on us. Moreover, work affects our physical and psychological health. As occupational psychologists Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper summarise in Well-Being: Productivity and Happiness at Work, “to be psychologically healthy we need to feel that what we are doing is worthwhile and serves a useful purpose.” Purposeful work supports self-respect, fulfils a desire to have a place in society, and offers a unique satisfaction of accomplishment in a job well done. Work that is dispiriting obviously drags us down, but work that is challenging, energising and fulfilling allows us to thrive.
The cumulative effect of the impacts of work on our lives is that, as John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education, “To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.” Meaningful work is integral in human flourishing, and for this reason it is helpful to reflect on what it is that makes work meaningful for a worker. Is work meaningful whenever it whenever it transcends rote, mindless labour and develops or exercises the capabilities of workers? Or whenever it makes a useful impact on others’ lives? Or whenever it reflects the personal values of workers? There is likely an element of truth in each of these possibilities.
We cannot produce a satisfying answer to the question of what makes work meaningful through the classic philosophical method of searching for a singular essence of a concept. Classically, philosophers from Socrates onward often try to uncover the true nature of concepts like justice, piety or knowledge through an analysis that aims at one essential definition. But meaningful work indelibly has many dimensions, just as life as a whole has many possibilities for meaningfulness, and the traditional philosophical move of trying to capture all meanings in a single principle appears ineffective particularly in the context of exploring the meaningfulness of life and work. Rather than reducing the multi-dimensionality of meaningfulness to a single definition, I would like to highlight four primary dimensions of meaningful work that emerge upon reflection.
1 Work is meaningful when it develops and exercises the capabilities, skills and talents of workers.
As Aristotle recognised, developing our capabilities is part of the purpose or function of being human, and we flourish partly by developing and exercising these capabilities. Aristotle thought that the good life required freedom from labour: a citizen needs an abundance of leisure for contemplation, political activity, and moral development, and work saps a person of time and energy for self-development. I think Aristotle is fundamentally wrong about the role of work in a good life and about the value of manual labour, which can in fact be richly meaningful and intellectually expressive. But his core insight about thriving though an active life of the development of human capabilities remains an enduring key component of many philosophical and empirical approaches to human well-being.
Work is a primary avenue of life for the development and exercise of human capabilities. It is at work that we hone our unique abilities and skills, including job-specific skills as well as general problem-solving skills, social skills, and decision-making skills that help us to flourish both within and outside of work. In A Theory of Justice John Rawls notes that the pleasure or satisfaction we experience in exercising our realised skills and capacities – which he calls the Aristotelian principle – is a natural principle of human motivation. He argues accordingly that well-ordered societies provide opportunities for meaningful work, as meaningful work provides people with crucial goods of self-respect and social membership. The underlying insight that we find satisfaction in expending our energies productively resonates with other philosophical and religious teachings on work. The Buddha, for instance, said that being skilled and energetic in one’s profession is conducive to happiness and that “joyful is the accumulation of good work.” Work can be richly meaningful and contribute to our happiness precisely because it allows us to offer our developed talents to others.
2 Work is meaningful when it supports virtues such as pride, honour, and dignity.
We cannot live an excellent life without the virtues, just as we cannot thrive without the development and exercise of our capabilities. Although it is possible to develop and express virtues in nonworking activities or in community affiliations (gaining honour by excelling at a leisure activity or feeling pride when a hometown team wins a sports game, for example), work is a predominant venue for a range of virtues, including honour, dignity, pride, dependability, industriousness, cooperativeness, self-discipline, and self-reliance. The virtues of honour, pride, and dignity attach to many everyday occupations in the respect that doing one’s part well in service to a community is honest and respectable. It is in this vein that certain religious theorists and social liberationists, like Martin Luther King Jr., assert that all labour has dignity or that all honest work is honourable. Even work that does not exercise some impressive skill can make a valuable contribution to a community and support a state of psychological health.
To be sure, not all work brings virtues of honour, pride, and dignity, for some work is dishonest or done sloppily, involves usury of others, or contributes nothing genuinely valuable to communities. But in principle, and particularly in a well-ordered society in which citizens need not stoop to dishonesty or usury to make a living, achieving a measure of honour, pride, and dignity through purposeful service is open to a majority of people.
3 Work is meaningful when it produces something useful or purposeful.
The question of the meaning of life often directs us to think about the purpose of our lives, and work is one source of purpose in life. Work is indeed a characteristically purposeful activity: it creates something of value for others (or for oneself), and in creating something that is valuable for others, a person herself becomes valuable to others. Her life is not superfluous but rather she has a place in the world. She has justified feelings of belonging, being needed, and contributing to a broader totality beyond herself. To be sure, we can achieve meaningful lives not only through our work but also through other activities such as having a family, finding love, being part of a religious community, or soaking up exhilarating experiences; life offers many sources of meaningfulness and happiness, and work is but a component of life. But work that serves a purpose provides a reason for our lives, and making oneself useful in a community provides a rich source of satisfaction.
The genuine purposefulness of work clearly varies across different jobs, as some jobs appear rather useless – and performing them can feel dispiriting – while others are utterly essential or quite impactful in communities. Someone on the cusp of finding a cure for leukaemia, for instance, may have a strong sense that part of the core purpose of his life is to finish his work and impart it to the world. His work is also a matter of personal legacy, answering the question, “for what will I be remembered?” Countless forms of work are also necessary for sustaining or advancing communities and, although not as glamorous as other forms of work, they therein carry an element of meaningfulness. Insofar as many forms of work are genuinely purposeful, this dimension of meaningful work appears widely available to many people. Meaningful work is perhaps not available to all people, if someone must serve on university assessment committees, for example, but nearly all work appears to have at least an element of meaningfulness.
4 Finally, work is meaningful when it integrates elements of a worker’s life, such as by building or reflecting personal relationships.
The question of the meaning of life may be a question about our purposes or ultimate values, but we can also understand it as an attempt to make sense out of life. From this perspective, the question of the meaning of life invites an attempt to make life coherent and consistent, perhaps through a narrative or a set of overarching values that weave together disparate elements of life. This quest for an integrated and coherent life leads us to think about meaningful work as work that reflects personal values, relationships, and environmental contexts which themselves help to render a life meaningful. This relational dimension of meaningful work illuminates meaningfulness in working a family business, or working in a place where one grew up, or where one always dreamed of living and working, or where one’s family members lived or died.
This dimension of meaningful work also renders mildly meaningful some of the daily work of parenting, like changing diapers or washing bottles, which play a role in a larger project of creating beings of value and building loving and meaningful relationships. In the wake of family tragedy, like the loss of a child, meaningful work that carries forward the life of that child or that somehow honours what was lost is also an important recourse for the living. The meaningfulness of work that assuages bereavement draws largely from the personal and relational contexts of work. And across everyday occupations, when people are asked why they entered particular lines of work, they often connect their work to their personal life or upbringing, as when a worker explains that she pursued work in a healthcare field because of health issues of family members, or enjoys feeding people in her work particularly because, as a child, she herself went without food.
A meaningful life is lived in relation to others, and building loving relationships with others provides an utterly essential source of meaningfulness in life. It is for this reason that work is meaningful when it builds or reflects relationships with people, animals, or places we love. Indeed, work itself can build love, simultaneously fulfilling needs for both loving relationships and meaningful contributions to the world. Working for someone (or even for some symbolic thing) whom one loves can also transform the experience of working into a meaningful experience, when in another context bereft of love the very same working activity would be drudgery. Washing dishes for an aging loved one who has trouble managing everything around the house is quietly meaningful in virtue of its personal and relational context, not to mention in virtue of allowing oneself to be of use in meeting genuine needs. By contrast, washing dishes all day long for little pay, and with little human connection or recognition, may bear meaningfulness in serving a purpose, but it is the sort of work from which most seek an escape.
Some philosophers may think that four dimensions of meaningful work are too many, that the meaningfulness of work is hopelessly unwieldy, and that we should give up on the matter of determining what makes work meaningful. But work bears too important an influence on our lives to give up on reflecting on work, and each of the four dimensions of meaningful work described above emerges from philosophically significant senses of meaningfulness. Meaningful work is a wonderfully complex concept; there is there is not just one reason why workers experience work as meaningful or fulfilling, nor is there just one defining feature of meaningful work. A philosophical search for a single essence of meaningful work – or of a meaningful life – would be fruitless not because these concepts are entirely opaque or unknowable but because a reductionist method of philosophical analysis is ineffective as a way of understanding such multidimensional concepts.
Although work can be a source of pride and personal fulfilment, it can also drain and damage people. One issue in trying to celebrate purposefulness in nearly all work is precisely that we can overlook the damaging influence of work on those who perform it. When people work at degraded jobs, when they hear intimations as a result of their work that they are unworthy, unintelligent, incompetent, untrustworthy or of lesser calibre, or when they occupy roles in which they merely follow the directives of others, work undermines the well-being of the person. More still, the labour involved in mass manufacturing endless items of clothing, mobile phones, computers, car parts, and more takes a toll not only on the natural environment but also on workers. In some cases, factory workers cannot get up, stretch, walk about, or even talk to one another, and experience an array of health issues from repeating the same operations thousands of times a day. As Ruth Cavendish writes of her experience working in a car parts factory in England in Women on the Line, on the assembly line, “we couldn’t do the things you would normally not think twice about, like blowing your nose or flicking hair out of your eyes; that cost valuable seconds – it wasn’t included in the layout so no time was allowed for it. In any case, your hands were usually full.” And “the women ran the line, but we were also just appendages to it. The discipline was imposed automatically …. We just slotted in, like cogs in a wheel. Every movement we made and every second of our time was controlled by the line.”
Some may hope that humanity is reaching the end of an eon in which human persons are routinely used up as tools of production. In his classic book on work in the context of automated mass production, The Anatomy of Work,Georges Friedmann notes that some forward-looking people, dazzled by the promise of automated technologies to free industrial workers from strenuous labour, talk as if jobs in which people toil like machines “had already vanished from off the face of the globe!” But for the foreseeable future these jobs remain entrenched in international networks of production and consumption, and, as Friedman writes, “it is much too early to consider atomised jobs and their problems as out-of-date.” In pondering the pervasiveness of these and other forms of oppressive work, I must confess I am often at a loss to envision arriving at a world in which ideals of flourishing through meaningful work are within reach for all people. Reducing voracious consumerism, developing and utilising automation for repetitive mechanical work, shortening the working day, and paying workers fairly represent solutions we may achieve in the long term. For now, work varies considerably in oppressiveness and in meaningfulness, and it presents social theorists and activists with a morass of problems that resist easy solutions but that are also too important to ignore.