What Work is Meaningful?

Viktor Frankl claimed that creative, productive work was one of the three main sources of meaning in human life. (The others are human relationships and bearing suffering nobly.) If the most meaningful lives entail meaningful work a number of questions arise. What kind of work is meaningful? Is meaningful work an objective or subjective notion? Can we find meaningful work in a capitalist economic system? Can we find meaningful work in any conditions?

Consider that you are a hunter-gatherer. You are walking along hunting and gathering.  This is work, but is it meaningful? Ultimately this question relates to the question of whether life is meaningful. If life is meaningful, then we would have to infer that hunting and gathering the food that makes life possible is meaningful.

Now let’s consider that the agricultural revolution has taken place. There is now excess food so one can be an artist, philosopher, priest, engineer, merchant, or statesman. Are these occupations more meaningful than hunting and gathering? Here the answer is subjective. Some would prefer growing food; others prefer creating art or reading books or running governments. If you want to grow food and find that more meaningful than writing computer code or trading on Wall Street, then, by all means, do it.

Now let’s consider a complicated global economy. You could still write books or paint pictures, but you might make more money on Wall Street, practicing medicine, or writing computer code. Suppose you’re convinced that the former is much more meaningful (to you) than the latter? If you are equally capable of being a starving artist as you are of writing computer code then you must decide what’s more important—the money or the work.  Would you rather make $20,000 a year selling art or teaching school or $300,000 a year practicing medicine or being a software engineer? The answer seems to depend on the individual.  Most people would probably take the higher salary because of the security and freedom they gain from the extra income—an earlier retirement, less financial stress, more money for their children, etc. But some would choose differently. Perhaps the higher-paying jobs have more stress or are less fulfilling.

Now if you think this global economic system is corrupt, that participating in it violates your values, then you could choose the less corrupt occupation. Perhaps practicing medicine or writing computer code exploits more individuals than teaching school or being a social worker. Now if you are convinced that any work makes you complicit in an immoral system, then you could move “off the grid” or, if possible, you could move to a new planet and create a new Eden. (More than one Star Trek episode has explored such themes.)

But is it necessarily more meaningful to live outside the world’s economic system or on a different planet? I’m not sure. Rousseau argued that we become human to the extent we participate in civilization. He thought that being civilized was better than being a “noble savage.” I do think we have more opportunities for meaningful lives in our present time, with our present technology, than we have had at any other time in human history. In the past few people read books, practiced medicine, designed the internet or received the goods and services that many of us now do.  Do these goods and services make our lives more meaningful? I think so—if meaning is emerging it is primarily because science and technology have created the conditions that make human flourishing possible. This doesn’t guarantee that everyone flourishes though, primarily because of flaws in human psychology, biology, and in the flawed political systems, humans create.

Still, this does not answer all our questions. Perhaps you would rather care for your child than advance your career; perhaps you would rather teach than write computer code. In the end, each person must make the best choice they can … and then hope for the best. The tragedy is that we live in a world where such choices must be made. I must work multiple low-paying jobs, sell my services as an athlete and damage my body for life, or do other work which isn’t meaningful.

Yet we should not curse this world; nor feel existential guilt in it merely by being alive, for there is meaningful work in the world. Maybe not perfectly or fully meaningful, but meaningful nonetheless. And with effort, we can find it. Good luck. 

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. ~ Viktor Frankl

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7 thoughts on “What Work is Meaningful?

  1. Thanks for this post. I believe it’s particularly timely because today a whole host of societal forces make this question of meaningful work especially acute.

    The core of a new book explores those forces and identifies a dozen underlying sources of fulfillment through work:

    “Wellsprings of Work”/ ‘Surprising Sources of Meaning and Motivation in Work’
    http://Www.wellsprings of work.com

    Many of these sources of fulfillment are unappreciated, yet uncovering them can help a wide range of people across far-ranging kinds of work tap into meaning and motivation. This is crucial not only for those just beginning their work lives, but also for those in mid-career and others approaching or in retirement, wondering what to do for an encore.

    Like Dr. Messerly’s post, “Wellsprings” discusses Victor Franks’s thinking, but goes on to examine others like David Graeber (“Bullshit Jobs”), Abraham Maslow (“The Farther Reaches of Human Nature”), Studs Terkel (“Working”), and many more. And while the book is idealistic, it is intensely practical, firmly grounded in experiences from the world of business, investing and law.

  2. The Buddha set out the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the end of suffering and one is Right Livelihood. If one can live one’s life rightly you can make it meaningful .

  3. the main tragedy lies in so many people doing things they dislike or even hate, just to earn money. They seem to live as if life were just a rehearsal for something else. I think Sartre illustrated this point perfectly with his theory of “bad faith”.

    Nothing wrong with earning money, of course….one has to make a living, but the other tragedy that follows from this is that most people think they need a lot more than what they really need. I think the best example is given by Socrates when he went to the market, looked around, and said: ” How many thing I don’t need.”.

    I am poor, but I feel freer than other people I see running around and wasting their lives getting things they don’t need. I have never understood why people buy new expensive stuff when they can get it used and save money, and therefore work less and have more time to do what one wants. To me buying new is just dumb, most people seem to be doing things just “to keep up with the joneses”. Of course, compromises will be found in anybody’s life, and I am no exception. But I am not one of those who will say, when old: “darn it, I really wanted to learn to play the piano, but I never did and ended up as an accountant!”.

    I hear of many people ending up like this, and I think that’s quite tragic. I am just glad I am a pianist (or a philosopher, painter, writer, etc). Is one’s life “meaningful”? Well, if one has followed his “daimon”, then one has given as much possible meaning to his life. There will always be regrets, but at least not that of the completely wrong path taken. At least, that’s my view. Interestingly that you mention Rousseau and what he believed about society: not long ago I have read his last autobiography he wrote before he died, and he describes himself as a profoundly bitter man who has been let down by the whole of society. I am hardly surprised…this is what happens when one puts faith and trust in others, especially “society”. But I guess that is another topic.

    Thank you for your essay!

  4. Not that we’re civilized, merely less barbaric than in the past—that’s not semantic. The war in Ukraine is modern hunter-gathering:
    hunt people, gather spoils.

    Being a starving artist has a dual purpose; it enables the artist as a dietician,

    “Tonight we’re having water for dinner.”

  5. I left a comment on another post appearing on this site. The story was about a fisherman and a banker. Don’t know yet if my remarks will be accepted, but their substance would be equally appropriate here.

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