Why Work?

By Robert Wheeler

Research about human motivation typically involves studies about meeting needs such as money, health, comfort, sex, and security–why struggle out of bed each morning,  meet job tasks, and maybe have some TV time in the evening. However, research has recently been extended to underlying factors that energize motives to meet these immediate needs and provide meaning and justification for related efforts. This can be called basic motivation. It is the drive to find and have meaningful purpose for these efforts, something more than just continuing immediate personal existence.

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.  This is the primary or basic motivation that provides fuel for daily activities. History indicates that ever since people have had the capacity to be conscious of self, this underlying motivation has been a major concern and provided foundation for religions and many branches of science. In psychology the fields of existential, humanistic, and positive psychologies have focused on this need through researchers such as Gordon Allport, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, and Martin Seligman . More recently Robert Emmons has popularized the term “ultimate concerns,” and shown its relationship to “personal strivings” and subjective well-being.

Because the answers to these ultimate concerns are nebulous and difficult to think about, people tend to align themselves with established 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 established by a theistic force to materialism that excludes anything beyond material nature.  Psychology research indicates this wonderment creates an innate need similar to personality traits.

Even though this need seems to be 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 by subscribing to answers provided by a belief system already established, one learned in childhood or through subsequent experience.. Even for these people who accept those answers, though, an innate desire to learn more about the source and its nature usually lingers.

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. All of this is possible if pursuit of the ontological imperative was emphasized and more widely recognized.

How nice it would be if our media, educators, and politicians would emphasize this underlying basic human motivation rather than that for immediate gratifications and thrilling events. Not only would it alleviate personal and domestic problems, it would also reduce global conflicts.