Several years ago, Gallup asked people in 142 countries to respond to a series of statements designed to measure employee engagement—involving matters like their job satisfaction, whether they felt their work was important, and whether they had opportunities in the workplace to learn and grow. What the polling firm found was that engagement is the exception, not the rule: Worldwide, 13 percent of employees were engaged at work, while 63 percent were not engaged and 24 percent were “actively disengaged,” meaning they were unhappy and unproductive. Engagement rates were highest in the United States and Canada, and lowest in East Asia.
“About one in eight workers … are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations,” Gallup noted. “The bulk of employees worldwide ... lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.”
These realities restrain not just economic productivity and growth, but quality of life around the world; after all, in advanced economies, people spend more than a third of their day at work. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, and Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., have both studied these dynamics. And in a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, they offered advice on how to make work more meaningful.
They acknowledged that they were privileged to be having the conversation in the first place. As one member of the audience put it, often the answer to the question of why you do what you do is as unvarnished and unromantic as “I need the paycheck. … I need to pay the bills.”
But they also pushed back against the notion that the discussion was only relevant to a privileged few. “Loving your job ... is not predicted by having a college degree and is not predicted by having above or below average income,” Arthur Brooks said. “You’re just as likely to love your job if you’re making $30,000 a year as if you’re making $300,000 a year.”
“There is no income level at which people are not desperate for meaning,” David Brooks added. “The churches, synagogues, and mosques of the world are filled with people who need moral purpose in their life.”
Below are some of their tips for turning a job into a vocation.
Attach work to ideals
David Brooks said he finds column-writing “perpetually unsatisfying because you always have to think of the next thing. … Each column’s a failure, because you’re churning them out so fast.” But the work becomes more satisfying when he thinks about the daily grind as a means of pursuing loftier ideals. For him, those ideals are modeling respectful political dialogue, advancing a “Whig” political ideology, pushing the political conversation in a moral and spiritual direction, and writing well.
Recognize meaningful moments
“The meaning of jobs comes from moments,” David Brooks said. As an example, he discussed his own writing process: “For each column, I get about 200 pages of research, and I write all over [those pages]. Then what I do, in the morning, is I get on my living-room floor and I take all the pages and I arrange them in piles on the floor. And each pile is a paragraph in my column. So [the column is] only 800 words, but it’s 14 piles or so. The process of writing is not the process of typing on a keyboard. It’s the process of crawling around on my carpet organizing my piles. And there are moments when ideas are flowing and I’m making connections and the structure is flowing into place, when I’m crawling around moving the papers around the piles, that are just the best moments of my job. It’s like a form of prayer almost.”
Serve others (or don’t?)
Arthur Brooks set out on a career as a French horn player. But then he came across Johann Sebastian Bach’s answer to why he’d become a composer: “The aim and final end of all music is nothing less than the glorification of God and the enjoyment of man.” Brooks gradually decided that he could better serve such aims as an economist, with a focus on improving the lives of the poor, than as a musician.
“The happiest people feel like they’re needed,” Brooks said. “The greatest engine of misery in our society is a sense of social and economic superfluousness”—a sense, he added, that is contributing to the anger on display in U.S. politics today.
David Brooks mentioned a study of hospital custodial workers where some defined their job as, say, cleaning the floor, while others described it as creating a safe environment for patients. “If your attitude is about that service, you just have a happier job and a more meaningful job,” Brooks said.
He compared a career to a marriage: “Nobody would enter a marriage with a utilitarian mindset: ‘Does this pass a cost-benefit analysis test? Am I getting more out of it than I’m putting in?’ … And in my view you shouldn’t enter a career that way either. You should enter a career with the question, ‘Who can I serve? What am I pouring my love into? Am I all in?’”
Still, Brooks cautioned that dwelling on serving others has its drawbacks. He cited the English author Dorothy Sayers, who argued that when you try to serve a community, you can become fixated on whether the community sufficiently appreciates your efforts. Sayers said the best way to truly help a community is to seek to do your job well—to primarily serve the work itself.
Ask why you do what you do
When people first meet in places like Washington, D.C., Arthur Brooks noted, they often ask, “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.
Brooks mentioned Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument in Summa Theologica that unhappy people are often chasing money, power, pleasure, and fame. “Look, we all want those things,” Brooks said. “There is evolutionary biology that asks why do people want money, power, pleasure, and fame. And it’s almost certainly that it’s easier to pass on your genetic material if you have a lot of money and power, and you’re searching for pleasure and you’re famous. … But what we find from Thomas Aquinas, [and] also from the social-psychology literature, is that Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy. Pushing you to pass on your genetic material is not coincident with you leading a happy life and doing it through vocation in your work. Which means that the genetic prerogatives are different than what we should be pursuing. So I think the diagnostic tool is: Why am I doing this thing? We all want money. But is it primarily for money? Is it primarily for power? Is it primarily for fame?”
David Brooks recommended asking what you would do if you weren’t afraid. “I find fear is a super-good GPS director of where you want to go even if there are social obstacles in the way,” he said. You should also ask what types of pain you’re willing to endure, he added: “Every profession involves a certain sort of pain.”
Be conscious of life stages
Arthur Brooks said that in the course of his work at the American Enterprise Institute, he’s noticed that differences in the “cadence of careers” have consequences for people’s happiness.
“Those who do the best, who end up really quite happy, they spend their 20s and 30s making their big discoveries,” he said. “That’s when their flashes of insight happen. … In their 40s and 50s, people in intellectual industries in particular, they tend to do their best expositional work. They do their best writing. ... They don’t have that many new ideas. But they’re really good at getting those ideas [that they had in their 20s and 30s] across. And people in their 60s and 70s … they do their best work when they see their work as teaching, when they see their work as actually imparting what they know to the next generation of people. And what they’re really doing is discharging their batteries and charging up other people. When you talk to them, they almost talk about making themselves irrelevant.”
“The unhappiest people are the ones who keep trying to do the 20s and 30s flashes of insights all the way through [until] they’re 79 or 83 years old,” Brooks continued. “And they want to go out with a bang and they want to stay famous. … They keep trying to write the new book that’s really a brand new idea even though they’re in a part of their life when they should be passing on their wisdom and knowledge.”
But David Brooks disagreed. He said he’s found that some of the happiest people are those who’ve divided their life into different chapters: “I think, as you go through life, it’s important to shift ground continually, and rediscover that 20s period. … If I were still writing now about the subjects I was writing about 13 years ago, it would be horrible.” He noted that artists like Titian have reached their creative peaks in their later years.
Don’t invest everything in work
“The happiest people according to all the best studies have a balanced portfolio,” Arthur Brooks said. “You need to balance your life portfolio between four things: the transcendental, which is to say the spiritual things bigger than you; your family; your community, which is your service and your friendships; and earning your success through meaningful work that creates value. Faith, family, community, and work.”
“If you have [only] one thing, you have an unbalanced portfolio,” Brooks added. It’s as if “your whole life is in Greek bonds. … Don’t take the risk.”
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