The way individuals make meaning of their work has differed throughout history. In primitive societies, work was a means to survive. Early Christians viewed work as an opportunity to share with others. During the Middle Ages, work was a means of spiritual purification. After the Protestant Reformation, work was seen as a way to serve God. Moving forward, in the 19th century, work presented as an opportunity for self-sufficiency and self-discipline. Across the 20th century, work challenged individuals to find a fitting long-term career. Now, in the 21st century, work has become a means to self-fulfillment.
Feeling fulfilled by work is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, work can provide a sense of personal identity and meaning. This is largely encouraged by societal factors. Think about it – when you meet someone for the first time, what is one of the first questions they ask you? It’s usually some version of “What do you do?”. Other people make sense of us through the lens of our professional identity. Therefore, it follows that we make sense of ourselves through the lens of our professional identity.
Similarly, establishing identity through work is not inherently a bad thing. But, let’s add another layer of complexity. America is built on capitalism, the idea that production leads to profit and profit equates to success. Internalized capitalism results when individuals determine their worth solely based on their productivity and this is can be toxic. Work can be an amazing source of fulfilment, identity, and meaning, but putting all of your eggs in one basket does not equate to a happy life.
Society encourages this kind of investment in other ways too. As another example, we heavily emphasize the relationship between man and wife. (The push for heteronormativity in our society is another ongoing, salient issue). The American dream represents a life of hard work which results in professional success, marriage, children, and a white picket fence. Further, media glorifies the idea of romantic love and finding “the one.” But, is it realistic to invest all of your relational needs in one person? The answer is no. Individual difference is a beautiful reality and one that we should embrace more fully. Different people have different strengths and capabilities. Different people have different things to offer and no one person can offer it all. If it is unwise to put all of your relational eggs in one basket, it follows that it is also unwise to put all of your worth/identity eggs in one basket.
When we internalize capitalism and tie our worth wholly to our professional identity, being productive becomes a necessity. Resting elicits guilt. We become so fixated on the future and what can be done next. Ignoring the present and orienting to the future is a space in which anxiety thrives. Anxiety is playing the “what if” game; it is fear of what the future will hold.
In my opinion, this current manifestation of anxiety gives proof to the effectiveness of mindfulness. Focusing on the current moment, instead of the future, offers an amount of reprieve, a moment to pull your head above water. This does not necessarily make the sources of anxiety disappear, but it allows you to find some distance from them and with distance often comes clarity.
If the way individuals make meaning of their work has changed across time, we can begin to deconstruct the idea that work is the only means to self-fulfillment. Of course it makes sense to find some amount of fulfilment through work, but you can find fulfilment in other spaces too. Maybe you find it by being a good daughter or friend. Maybe you find it by living according to your values or engaging in a hobby. Either way, I will end by offering one final metaphor. Any financial planner would advise you to diversify your money. Invest in stocks, bonds, real estate, mutual funds. That way, if any investment goes south, you have the other investments to rely on. Think of your fulfilment in the same way. If one source of fulfilment goes south, because life is full of ups and downs, you have other sources to rely on.
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