Is it important to work?

The Shrink

The economist Richard Layard is one of many who claim that unemployment is one of those misfortunes, like divorce and chronic pain, that most affect long-term happiness. Work is good, he says, because it gives people meaning, self-respect and the chance to make a contribution; unemployment is bad because it robs them of all this.

But unemployment is by no means the only work issue to affect mental health. Any significant discrepancy between our wished-for and actual work reality can be corrosive to our wellbeing. Some find their work soul-destroying but don’t have ready alternatives, while others flit from job to job in search of “the one”. Since the perfect blend of fulfilling and well-paid work is not always attainable, many people face the challenge of concocting the next best thing.

It may help to remember that paid employment is not the sole provider of purpose, self-worth and engagement. A job can work against us if it is experienced as tedious and irrelevant. Even Layard qualifies his praise by saying that work is vital if that is what you want, and if it is fulfilling. Tying too close a knot between meaningful activity and paid employment can be perilous, as we know from people who lose all sense of meaning when they retire.

It is also important to ask ourselves whether we are thinking of work primarily as a means to an end, a way of funding other things we want, or as something that holds intrinsic value. Doing a job that lacks excitement but allows you to do exciting things in your spare time might work perfectly well for some. For others, it is preferable to earn less doing something you love, which liberates the time to pursue what really matters to you.

If you want the good things in life, but are neither born to a trust fund nor have found the kind of meaningful work that can provide them directly, then you have some thinking to do: the trade-offs are treacherous, and some of what you value may have to be sacrificed to save what you value most.

The Sage

Among the many career options we have to weigh up, one is almost taboo. As the reader who suggested this week’s question put it, someone tempted to work as little as possible is likely to be “afraid of being judged as a useless slacker”.

This taboo seems to have grown as our work options have multiplied. Now work is no longer destiny, determined at birth by the class of your parents; how we earn a living reflects more of our individual qualities and choices, and we are judged accordingly. But perhaps these judgments are distorted by confusing sound reasons for thinking work is important with the false belief that honest labour is inherently virtuous.

Take, for instance, the Buddhist inclusion of “right livelihood” as part of the righteous Eightfold Path. The Buddha’s key idea here is that however you sustain yourself, you must do so honestly, fairly and without causing harm. Paradigmatic examples would be monks who rely on dana, the generosity of voluntary donations, rather than taking payment in return for spiritual services. So, far from praising employment, the emphasis on right livelihood is actually about making sure the goal of living virtuously is not corrupted by our desire and need to earn a living.

Or consider Freud, who is widely attributed with the quote: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” This is actually a paraphrase by Erik H. Erikson. What Freud actually said is that “the compulsion to work” was “created by external necessity”. The imperative to work springs from practical demands, not immutable psychic needs.

There is nothing valuable in work per se. Indeed, Bertrand Russell went so far as to claim that “immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous”. If we work more than we need to, we deprive ourselves of the time and opportunity for learning, self-development, relationships and many other things that make for a better world. If we must work, or choose to do so, what matters is that it serves the goal of living well, rather than detracts from it.

This week’s question was suggested by an FT reader. To send your own, please e-mail shrinkandsage@ft.com

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