Alain de Botton: Why should work make us happy?

Prosperity has left us with unrealistic expectations about what our daily efforts should bring.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The most remarkable feature of the modern workplace has nothing to do with computers, automation or globalisation. It lies in the widely held belief that our work should make us happy. All societies have had work right at their centre; ours is the first to suggest that work could be something other than a punishment or penance.

Ours is the first to imply that a sane human being would want to take up work even if he or she wasn't under financial pressure to do so. We are unique, too, in allowing our choice of work to define who we are, so that the central question we ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents are, but, rather, what it is they do - as though only this could effectively reveal what gives a human life its distinctive timbre.

It wasn't always like this. Graeco-Roman civilisation tended to view work as a chore best left to the slaves. For both Plato and Aristotle, fulfilment could be reached only through the command of a private income that would enable one to escape day-to-day obligations and freely devote oneself to the contemplation of ethical and moral questions. The entrepreneur and merchant played no role in the antique vision of the good life. Early Christianity took a similarly bleak view of labour, adding to the idea that it was a necessary practical burden the even darker thought that man was condemned to toil in order to make up for the sin of Adam. Working conditions, however abusive, could not be improved. Work wasn't accidentally miserable. It was one of the planks on which earthly suffering was irrevocably founded. St Augustine reminded slaves to obey their masters and accept their pain as part of what he termed, in The City of God, the 'wretchedness of man's condition'.

The first signs of the modern, more cheerful attitude to work can be detected in the city states of Italy during the Renaissance, and, in particular, in the biographies of the artists of the time. In descriptions of the lives of people such as Michelangelo and Leonardo, we find some now familiar-sounding ideas about what our labours could ideally be for us: a path to authenticity and glory. Rather than a burden and punishment, artistic work could allow us to rise above our ordinary limitations. We could express our talents on a page, or on a canvas, in a way we never could in our everyday lives.

Of course, this new vision applied only to an artistic elite (no-one had yet thought to tell a servant that work could develop his or her true self, a claim waiting for modern management theory), but it proved to be the model for all successive definitions of happiness earned through work.

It was not until the late 18th century that the model was extended far beyond the artistic realm. In the writings of bourgeois thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, Diderot or Rousseau, we see work recategorised not only as a means to earn money but also as a way of 'becoming oneself'. Here was a reconciliation of necessity and happiness typical of the bourgeois outlook, exactly mirroring the contemporary re-evaluation of marriage.

Just as marriage was redescribed as an institution that could deliver both practical benefits and sexual and emotional fulfilment (a handy conjunction once thought impossible by the aristocracy, who saw a need for a mistress and a wife), so too work was alleged to be capable of delivering both the money necessary for survival and the stimulation and self-expression that had once been seen as the exclusive preserve of the leisured.

Simultaneously, people began to experience a new kind of pride in their work, because the way that jobs were handed out took on a semblance of justice. In his Autobiography, Thomas Jefferson explained that his proudest achievement had been to create a meritocratic United States, where 'a new aristocracy of virtue and talent' replaced the old aristocracy of unfair privilege and, in many cases, brute stupidity. Meritocracy endowed jobs with a quasi-moral quality. Now that prestigious and well-paid posts seemed to be available only on the basis of actual intelligence and ability, your job title could perhaps say something directly meaningful about you. It was no longer possible to argue that professional position was wholly divorced from inner qualities or to claim that the rich and powerful must necessarily have attained their positions through corrupt means.

Over the 19th century, many Christian thinkers, especially in the US, changed their views of money accordingly. American Protestant denominations suggested that God required his followers to lead a life that was successful both temporally and spiritually; fortunes in this world were evidence that one deserved a good place in the next - an attitude reflected in the Reverend Thomas P Hunt's bestseller of 1836, The Book of Wealth: In which it is proved from the Bible that it is the duty of every man to become rich.

Wealth came to be described as a reward from God for holiness. John D Rockefeller was unabashed to state that it was the Lord who had made him rich, while William Lawrence, the bishop of Massachusetts, writing in 1892, argued: 'In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes. We, like the Psalmist, occasionally see the wicked prosper, but only occasionally. Godliness is in league with riches.'

In a meritocratic age, demeaning jobs came to seem not merely regrettable, but, just like their more exciting counterparts, deserved. No wonder people started asking each other what they did - and listening carefully to the answers.

All this seems to offer grounds for celebration, but, like attitudes to marriage, modern attitudes to work have unwittingly caused us problems - through their sheer ambition and optimism. Claims are now made for almost all kinds of work that are patently out of sync with what reality can provide. Some jobs are certainly fulfilling, but most are not, and never can be. We would therefore be wise to listen to some of the pessimistic voices of the pre-modern period, if only to stop torturing ourselves for not being as happy in our work as we were told we could be.

The American philospher-psychologist William James (1842-1910) once made an acute point about the relationship between happiness and expectation. He argued that satisfaction with ourselves does not require us to succeed in every area of endeavour. We are not always humiliated by failing at things; we are only humiliated if we first invest our pride and sense of worth in a given achievement, and then do not reach it. Our goals determine what we will interpret as a triumph and what must count as a failure: 'With no attempt there can be no failure and with no failure no humiliation. So our self-esteem in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.' Thus:

Self-esteem = Success

Pretensions

If happiness at work is now so hard to earn, it's because our pretensions have so dramatically outstripped reality. We expect every job to deliver some of the satisfaction available to Freud or Roosevelt. Perhaps we should be reading Marx instead. Of course, he was wrong in all his prescriptions for a better world, but Marx remains rather acute at diagnosing why work is so often miserable.

Immanuel Kant had argued in his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (1785) that behaving morally towards other people required that one respect them 'for themselves', instead of using them as a means for one's enrichment or glory. With reference to Kant, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx famously accused the bourgeoisie, and its new science, economics, of practising 'immorality' on a grand scale: '[Economics] knows the worker only as a working animal - as a beast reduced to strictest bodily needs.' The wages paid to employees were, said Marx, just 'like the oil which is applied to wheels to keep them turning. The true purpose of work is no longer man, but money.'

Marx may have been a poor historian, erratically idealising the pre-industrial past and unduly castigating the bourgeoisie, but his theories retain a value in capturing and dramatising an inescapable degree of conflict between employer and employee.

Every commercial organisation will try to gather raw materials, labour and machinery at the lowest possible price to combine them into a product that can be sold at the highest possible price. From the economic perspective, there are no differences between any of the elements in this equation. All are commodities that the rational organisation will seek to source cheaply and handle efficiently in the search for profit. And yet, troublingly, there is one difference between 'labour' and other elements that conventional economics doesn't have a means to represent or give weight to but is nevertheless unavoidably present in the world: the fact that labour feels pain and pleasure.

When production lines grow prohibitively expensive, these may be switched off and will not cry at the seeming injustice of their fate. A business can move from using coal to natural gas without the neglected energy source walking off a cliff. But labour has a habit of meeting attempts to reduce its price or presence with emotion. It sobs in toilet cubicles, it drinks to ease its fears of under-achievement and it may choose death over redundancy.

These emotive responses point us to two, perhaps conflicting, imperatives co-existing in the workplace: an economic imperative that dictates that the primary task of business is to realise a profit; and a human imperative that leads employees to hunger for financial security, respect, tenure and even, on a good day, fun. Though the two imperatives may for long periods coexist without apparent friction, what makes anxiety a lingering presence in the lives of all wage-dependent workers is the awareness that, in any serious choice between the two, the economic one must always - by the very logic of the commercial system - prevail.

Struggles between labour and capital may no longer, in the developed world at least, be as bare-knuckled as in Marx's day. Yet despite advances in working conditions and employment legislation, workers remain in essence tools in a process in which their own happiness or economic wellbeing is necessarily incidental. Whatever camaraderie may build up between employer and employed, whatever goodwill workers may display and however many years they may have devoted to a task, they must live with the knowledge and anxiety that their status is not guaranteed - that it remains dependent on both their own performance and the economic wellbeing of their organisations; that they are hence a means to profit, and never, as they might unshakeably long for at an emotional level, ends in themselves.

This is all sad, but not half as sad as it is when we blind ourselves to the reality and raise our expectations of our work to extreme levels. A firm belief in the necessary misery of life was for centuries one of mankind's most important assets, a bulwark against bitterness, a defence against dashed hopes - and yet one cruelly undermined by the expectations incubated by the modern world-view.

Over the past 20 years there has been an ever-increasing attempt on the part of managers to suggest that work is fun and the employer is a family. The recession reveals that work is hard and that, if the employer is like a parent, then it is a rather harsh and unforgiving sort.

We have to set the cheerful tone of modern management into context. For most of human history, the only instrument needed to induce employees to complete their duties energetically and adroitly was the whip. So long as workers had only to kneel down and retrieve stray ears of corn from the threshing-room floor or heave quarried stones up a slope, they could be struck hard and often, with impunity and benefit. But the rules of employment had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be fairly content, rather than terrified or resigned. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to remove brain tumours, draw up binding legal documents or sell condominiums with convincing energy could not profitably be sullen or resentful, morose or angry, the mental wellbeing of employees began to be a supreme object of managerial concern.

The jobs in the world's office towers cannot be administered by the fear of an external power. Watchtowers are of no use in encouraging staff to engage their higher faculties in the drafting of annual tax deferment schedules, requiring managers to handle their charges with patient and costly respect. These overlords have been deprived of the cavalier attitudes of 18th-century ship-owners, who were enviably free to hurl their slaves into the mid-Atlantic at early signs of scurvy. The new figures of authority must involve themselves with daycare centres and, at monthly get-togethers, animatedly ask their subordinates how they are enjoying their jobs so far.

But in an economic crisis, the gloves come off and power is more cleanly revealed again. So one of the benefits of the crisis is that it enables us to lower our expectations as to what work can deliver. Some of the greater existential questions disappear. Simply holding down an ordinary job and surviving comes to seem like reward enough. We should perhaps temper our sadness in these troubled times by remembering that work is often more bearable when we don't expect it always to deliver happiness in addition to money.

Alain de Botton is the author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton on 2 April at £18.99.

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