Why Work?

By Robert Wheeler

Sometimes it’s difficult to struggle out of bed in the morning and trundle off to a job or some other activity that you don’t really enjoy.  During the day you are under pressure to do difficult things, and then in the evening if you can relax in front of the TV, enough energy returns that you can sleep comfortably and start all over the next day. Why do you do these things? Is it just to meet needs such as money, health, comfort, and entertainment? There must be something more, something that will give meaning and more energy and satisfaction to these efforts.  Research has shown that we all have within us a drive to find and have meaningful purpose for our efforts, something more than just continuing immediate personal existence. There seems to be an underlying basic motivation.

Psychologists that study motivation have found that a universal characteristic of normally thinking people is to wonder about why they are here, where they came from, and where they are going—the source and meaning of existence.  Searching for answers is the basic motivation that provides meaning and energy to daily efforts to meet immediate needs. History indicates that ever since people have had the capacity to be conscious of self, this underlying motivation has been a major concern that became shared, socially organized, and provided foundation for religions, philosophies, and many branches of science.

Because the answers to these ultimate concerns are nebulous and difficult to think about, people tend to align themselves with assumptions and beliefs of other people, institutions, or organizations. Such belief systems have formed culture and dominated societies.  They range all the way from determinism advocating some form of God that is the answer to all questions to materialism that excludes anything beyond what can be observed leaving answers to imagination and speculation .  Answers to these ultimate questions and explanations of what started all of this is not as important as recognizing that wanting to know is a natural state of affairs, and our search and its progress is important  for satisfaction in daily life.

Even though this basic motivation is a universal human characteristic, it is manifest many ways. For many people it is not as pressing as those of daily life such as job, food, and entertainment. The less pressing question of why gets pushed into recesses of the subconscious mind where it either creates an unsettled feeling or surfaces unexpectedly. For many people it is met successfully by subscribing to answers provided by a belief system already established, one learned in childhood or through subsequent experience.. Even for people who accept those answers, though, questions and a desire to learn more about the source and its nature usually linger, thus continuing the search.

Despite our improved standard of living with its comforts and entertainment, particularly in the United States, there are increasing rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and criminality. Many people are dissatisfied and have a feeling of meaninglessness or discontent from wanting something more–something more than their daily struggles and the consumerism, crime, fraud, conflict, and terrorism they are bombarded with by the media. They want something more than politicians and community leaders that push for power and self-interests; something more than educators that cater to radical activists and teach self-enhancement and material wealth; or something more than nations that pursue warfare, global conflict, and violence. Getting this “something more” is allusive, but the search is the basic motivation that needs to be recognized. If this motive to search was given publicity and people thought more about it, difficulties and hardships would be easier to endure improving personal health, well-being, and performance. And, if enough people around the world were more concerned with this search, cooperation and sharing would replace competition and conflict.

How nice it would be if our media, educators, and politicians would emphasize this underlying basic human motivation to search for ultimate meaning rather than their current emphasis on immediate gratifications, violence, and thrilling events. Not only would it alleviate personal and domestic problems, it would also reduce global conflicts. It might even answer the question, “why work?”


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