Happiness Inc. | Third Space

Happiness Inc.

Found any existential satisfaction and transcendence at work lately?
Wed 21 Aug 2019

Have you ever regrettably asked a colleague how they’re going first thing on a Monday morning? Not long after you’ve clocked in you’ve realised you’ve committed your first mistake of the day as they utter those familiar sarcastic words. They’re ‘living the dream’ or it’s ‘just another day in paradise’ - stock standard coping mechanisms for early bouts of Monday-itis. For those less sarcastically inclined they might say that they’ll be ‘better when it’s Friday’ or when they’ve had their first coffee. All communicate the same thing though – that work is a grind and the last place they want to be on a Monday.

The vast majority of us can relate to this sentiment. Is it a lack of being challenged/stimulated? Is it that feeling of repetition and meaninglessness? Maybe it’s being stuck in a toxic workplace which brings out the worst in us? Is it addiction to pleasure and personal time? Sick of responsibility? Maybe you’re disillusioned about your life choices and things just never panned out the way you hoped? Why are we generally unhappy in our working lives?

Last year Gallup polls conducted a survey on work engagement which found that only 14% of Australians and New Zealanders are engaged with their work. 71% said they were not engaged, and another 15% said they were actively disengaged. So for every person that enjoys their work, there’s statistically another who loathes their work, with the vast majority indifferent or vaguely unhappy.

Earlier this year Carl Cederstrom published ‘The Happiness Fantasy’ – a cynical yet fascinating look at how workplaces have changed over the last 60 years.[1] He suggests that bohemian subcultures in the 60s started a wave of self-help movements that promised to unlock your authentic, creative, empowered, beautiful selves. No longer would we be trapped in lives of institutional dreariness and predictable mediocrity, but we could control our own destinies. Do what we want to do, say what we want to say, and be who we want to be.

Naturally this attracted waves of followers, particularly those with a rebellious streak who wanted to break out of the cultural norms and expectations. Sexual liberation and freedom in the 60s and 70s were the primary form of self-expression, but it wasn’t long before corporations and workplaces seized on the opportunity. They started to borrow the same language, run the same workshops, and signal the same virtues. You could be all these things, and do all these things through your career. Work could become the vehicle in which you unlock your potential, harness your creativity, and find an outlet for your self-expression. In effect, work could make you happy.

This mindset has largely continued today, where Cederstrom notes that we live in a ‘Do What You Love’ Culture. There is now an expectation that your work should satisfy you, fulfil you, and ultimately make you happy. If it doesn’t then you need to quit, change career, re-train, take control of your destiny and your happiness.

Derek Thompson at the Atlantic writes along similar lines suggesting that work has essentially replaced religion as the primary place we look to find meaning, transcendence and identity. He coins the term ‘workism’ to describe this phenomena, but notes that this attitude to work and life has major shortcomings. It can lead to workaholism, burnout, loneliness, disillusionment and more.

And any of us can easily slip into these modes of thinking when journeying through our chosen career path. So I want to outline a few quick reasons/reminders why we can have a freedom to look beyond the trappings of work, and let the transcendence of God calibrate our working lives.

1) Consider the true nature of work

Work ought not be about us and our self-expression or creativity. Sure that can be part of it, but it is not the goal or purpose of work. Work is primarily about serving the needs of others, and cultivating the world we have been entrusted with. Helping people, and helping them enjoy God’s world is inherently noble, and ought to be the marker of success, rather than increasing profits or unlocking your creativity or genius through your work.

2) Consider that work sits alongside rest

It’s essential to put boundaries around our work so we can rest, refresh and commit to the other things that are important in our lives – our families, our friends, our communities, passions, responsibilities etc... We don’t need to be a slave to our work just because it’s expected. Always being connected and/or working longer hours to please the boss becomes exhausting, unsustainable, and ultimately destructive. Life can be so much more rounded when work doesn’t dominate our faculties and hinder our ability to connect with those most important to us. So we need to guard, appreciate and practice rest.

3) Consider that our work will always meet resistance

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with people, animals, plants or objects – anything can go wrong at any time. As Christians we believe the world is fallen, and this continues to taint both human relationships and our relationships with nature itself. This forces us to be humble and cautious in our expectations – not bitter and cynical, but open to problem solving and appreciative when things go well.

4) Remember that our legacy will die

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in hospitality, a middle-manager, or the President of the United States – our work can be undone in an instant. Death robs our lives of cohesive meaning, and the things we work so hard for are often in vain. Eventually our work and achievements we will be inconsequential, irrelevant, outdated and replaced. But for the Christian our work is not in vain, when we consider the work of the Jesus and the small part we all have to play in it.

This may seem like bizarre advice - if you haven't engaged with the teachings of Jesus - but hopefully reasonable in light of modern research and statistics concerning work. Your career will never give the existential satisfaction and transcendence we are looking for as humans. It can only be found in following Jesus. Doing so will not only transform your approach to your working life, but to everything you do and the very core of who you are.

[1] Cederstrom, C. “The Happiness Fantasy” Polity Press, UK (2019)