Sigmund Freud is said to have argued that two things—love and work—are what make us human. The internet would have us believe that this idea is his, but as far as I can tell, it is of unknown origin. It is a meme that travels from one end of the web to the other simply because it resonates with people. Indeed, we spend so much of our time preoccupied with love and work that it makes sense to accept them as our most defining characteristics. We are animals who love and work. That is what we are.
Whenever I fear that the cynical malaise of our era inhibits any serious discussion of love, I recall the words of George E. Vaillant, M.D., who, after completing Harvard’s seventy year-long study on how to live well, concluded that, “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” While gut instinct can often lead us astray into territory that demands rational course correction, it got this right: “Happiness equals love—full stop.” You’re free to close the book on the subject with a snap that echoes with a satisfying crack through the halls of your psyche.
But what about work? “Work is of two kinds,” argued the estimable philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface; second, telling other people to do so.” Work, in other words, is either the act of moving things and altering stuff or telling other people how to do so. “The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid,” Russell notes, “the second is pleasant and highly paid.” The problem is that work, like love, is a force that provides our life with meaning. It is, as Freud (or whoever) said, one of the defining characteristics of what makes us human, even if it is just moving stuff around on the earth’s surface. Listen to this construction worker describe his job to a sociologist in 1976:
I climb up on those beams every morning I’m working, and I like being way up there looking down at the world. It’s a challenge up there, and the work’s hardly ever routine. You have to pay attention and use your head, too, otherwise you can get into plenty of trouble in the kind of work I do. I’m a good man, and everybody on the job knows it.
This man went so far as to derive his sense of worth from his work. “I’m a good man, and everybody on the job knows it.” He may be lost to history—the sociologist who recorded his words destroyed her records once she published her book—but the buildings he worked on still probably loom large over a metropolis he helped construct. The skyline is more than an outline of a city. No, it is a landscape of meaning.
It makes you wonder, how much has actually changed in the last forty years? According to journalist Johann Hari, not much:
There is strong evidence that human beings need to feel their lives are meaningful—that they are doing something with purpose that makes a difference. It’s a natural psychological need. But between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people feel about the thing we spend most of our waking lives doing—our paid work. They found that 13% of people say they are “engaged” in their work—they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are “not engaged”, which is defined as “sleepwalking through their workday”. And 24% are “actively disengaged”: they hate it.
So how do you escape? Nurture the connections you have with others. Do something you love regardless of the reward: pick up the guitar again, volunteer to help the less fortunate, build community. Wait for the vicious cycle of work, eat, fuck, work, eat, fuck to pass and put a determined spoke into its goddamned wheels.