Work is so much more than a regular pay packet, but have you ever considered the possibility of escaping to exotic locales to do good deeds for charity or something similar? It’s part of the nobility of the human spirit – the desire to change our world for the better. These sorts of ideas can be particularly attractive at times when we’re questioning our motivation or workplace happiness, but there is a trap for the unwary.
What does ‘meaning’ actually mean?
Existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have suggested that life is essentially meaningless – that the notion of meaning is just a figment of our imagination, and something we use to make the events that shape our lives more tolerable. It’s an idea that can be a little depressing, but also strangely liberating. But if meaning is something we make, then we are free to live as we choose and not be bound by other people’s ideas.
However humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Alfred Adler suggest a different view. Though not disagreeing with the idea that meaning is ‘made’, they assert it is made in accordance with some hardwired human needs, among them the need to make a valuable contribution to our social group – those we want to be with including our families, communities and society. In evolutionary terms, we are genetically driven to be pro-social because being a valued member of a group gives us a better chance of surviving and reproducing.
So how does that relate to meaningful work?
Most jobs don’t have the glamour of trekking through the Amazon to deliver vaccines to long-lost tribes, but you probably don’t have to save the world to experience happiness and fulfilment in your career either. And it certainly gets you out of dealing with moth-sized mosquitoes, man-eating snakes or cannibalistic fish, which is probably better for your family. When it comes down to it, those vaccines have been developed by underpaid scientists and purchased by the generosity of ordinary working people who are making a difference where they can.
There’s a famous quote that says, “You don’t help the poor by becoming one of them.” It’s a good point. The world needs people to trek through the jungle, but not too many. Mostly it needs people to keep the economy running, to care for children, to fix the plumbing, to manage the accounts and to run the machine that is ‘modern life’. There has never been a higher standard of living, safety or health than that enjoyed by people, like us, living in today’s developed world. If we want to share that with our developing cousins, we won’t achieve it by throwing in the towel.
The middle path
After eight years of meditation in search of enlightenment, the young Buddha had a realisation that there was a middle path – a way to be in the world without being caught up in selfishness and suffering. When it comes to meaning, there is also a middle path – a way to do what is practical and to make a difference. You can do good work and keep the towel (preferably hanging in close proximity to a nice hot shower).
We all want to be happy at work and make a valued contribution, and it’s something that is achievable when our work is aligned to important personal values in a role that utilise our natural abilities. There are a million different ways we can contribute to the lives of others, and if you’re still keen to trek through the jungle, there are dozens of aid-oriented tourism companies that can take you somewhere useful for your holidays.
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