Pause for a second and think what makes you happiest. Good health? A satisfying romantic relationship? Your children thriving? Spending time with friends and family? Traveling to interesting places? Being engrossed in an entertaining hobby? All of these are undoubtedly important values (some of them optional) that make us happy. However, I argue that the most fundamental daily source of happiness is productive work, and more specifically, work that we love. (See the link to an interesting article with some practical advice about finding and doing that kind of work: http://paulgraham.com/love.html. I found this link on the Thinking Directions discussion group on LinkedIn).
Why is productive work the most fundamental source of happiness? Because producing something is more satisfying to us in the long term than unproductive activities. “Unproductive pleasures pall eventually,” says Paul Graham in the above article. Creating something of value gives us a sense of accomplishment and is the most fundamental source of self-esteem. Producing something of value—in any line of work, whether running a large corporation or cleaning houses—requires that we do a good job, that we do our best. Being productive and doing our best affirms to us that we are capable and we are worthy of the rewards of productivity, both material and spiritual, such as self-esteem.
Self-esteem contributes to our happiness, but the spiritual benefits of doing our best in producing something do not end there. Producing material values—from insurance policies to health care services to restaurant meals to mobile phones—requires that we develop capabilities and virtues. In order to produce, we must apply reason, think for ourselves to find ways of continually improving our work and the products or services we are creating, and deal with others honestly and fairly. Such capabilities and virtues allow us to solve problems and achieve values in other areas of life, such as social relationships and recreational pursuits, further enhancing our happiness.
Work also gives us purpose—which we need if we are to achieve any values at all. Values cannot be achieved through a haphazard, random effort. First you have to decide what values are important to you and then to identify how to achieve them—how much time, effort, and resources are needed. But we cannot know what values are important and how to pursue them unless we have some standard by which to judge. The standard, or a central purpose, that allows us to put the rest of our values in a hierarchy, is productive work.
Why is productive work the central purpose for humans? Why cannot family, friends, recreational pursuits, or a romantic relationship be the central purpose for us? For most of us these are important values, but if we allocated the majority of our time and effort to pursuing them instead of work, we would not be able to survive. We need to work in order to gain material values necessary for our survival and flourishing, from food and shelter to health care and entertainment. And the need for material values is continual: eating a meal once in your life, or wearing one shirt, is not enough. Achieving the material values we need to support our life is a major effort, and for most of us working only sporadically is not sufficient to accomplish that, or the self-esteem that comes from productive work. (See Tara Smith (2006): Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 210-211 for an elaboration as to why productive work is the central purpose).
Choosing the work we do (which may vary in the different stages of life) has a major impact on our happiness. Settling in a job that is not interesting, enjoyable, and does not allow you to learn, is not a good idea—if you want to be happy. There is never just that one job that is available but finding another one that is a better match requires effort, sometimes even moving to a new field with different qualifications.