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, the most fundamental daily source of happiness is productive work, and more specifically, work that we love. (See the an interesting article with some practical advice about finding and doing that kind of work. I found this link on the Thinking Directions discussion group on LinkedIn).
Why is productive work the most fundamental source of happiness? Because work gives us purpose—and purpose is an essential human need. We survive by pursuing and achieving values, but values cannot be achieved through a haphazard, random effort. First we have to decide what values are important and then 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? Why cannot family, friends, or recreational pursuits replace productive work as the central purpose? They are important values, but if we allocated most of our time and effort to pursuing them instead of work, we would not be able to survive. We need to work to gain material values necessary for our survival and flourishing, from food and shelter to health care and recreational pursuits.
The need for material values is continual: eating a meal once in your life, or buying a pair of socks once, is not enough. Achieving the material values we need to support our life is a major effort, and for most of us, working for an hour every once in a while is not sufficient to accomplish that. (See Tara Smith’s book: Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 210-211 for further elaboration as to why productive work is the central purpose).
Despite the importance of material values for our survival and enjoyment of life, productive work is not needed merely to earn a living. Producing material values—from insurance policies to health care services to restaurant meals to mobile phones—requires us to use reason (in any job). It requires us to think for ourselves, to find ways of always improving our work and products and services we are creating, and to deal with others honestly and fairly. In other words, productive work requires us to apply other virtues—rationality, independence, honesty, and justice—and do our best. And if we strive to do just that, self-esteem and happiness will be our reward. As an added bonus, we will have developed capabilities to solve problems in other areas of life outside of work, such as in social relationships.
In order to commit to do our best at something that requires a major part of our time and energy, the work we choose must be interesting and enjoyable (the criteria for which may vary in the different stages of life). Sometimes such work is not immediately available, or if it is, we may not be able to support ourselves through it.
But the key is to strive for interesting and enjoyable work, by learning or upgrading the qualifications required for it so that that eventually we are able to do the kind of productive work we love and to make a living from doing it.
Originally posted July 2012.