Alain de Botton: Why should work make us happy?

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

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'.

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