“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to the trailer for his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
As an economist, I’ve heard plenty of complex explanations for Karl Marx’s famous opposition to capitalism. Fundamentally, though, Marx’s reasoning comes down to something simple: happiness. He believed that capitalism made people unhappy by treating them as part of a machine in which the person is expunged and only productivity remains. “The spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates on the individual independently of him,” Marx wrote in his 1844 essay “Estranged Labor.” “It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.” Workers are objectified, in his view, made into miserable shells.
Whether or not you agree with Marx’s assessment of what the capitalist system does to us, many of us indisputably do what he describes to ourselves. Too many people who work hard and strive for success self-objectify as excellent work machines and tools of performance.
Strivers seek professional success to deliver satisfaction and happiness. But self-objectification makes both impossible, setting us up for a life of joyless accomplishment and unreachable goals followed by the tragedy of inevitable decline. To be happy, we need to throw off these chains we put on ourselves.
When it comes to happiness, Marx was right: Objectification lowers well-being. Research shows, for example, that when people are reduced by others to physical attributes through objectifying stares or harassment, it can lower self-confidence and competence in tasks. The philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to this as becoming “an Object of appetite for another,” at which point “all motives of moral relationship cease to function.”
Physical objectification is just one type. Objectification at work is another, and an especially injurious one. In 2021, three French researchers in the journal Frontiers in Psychology developed a measure of objectification in the workplace based on the feeling of being used as a tool, and not being recognized as an agent in the working environment. As they note, workplace objectification may lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, depression, and sexual harassment. This can happen if a boss treats her employees like nothing more than disposable labor, or even if employees see their boss as nothing more than a provider of money.
The case against objectifying others is fairly straightforward. Less obvious but equally damaging is when the objectifier and the person being objectified are one and the same. Humans are capable of objectifying themselves in many ways—by assessing their self-worth in terms of their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example—but all of them boil down to one damaging core act: reducing one’s own humanity to a single characteristic, and thus encouraging others to do so as well. In the case of work, that might look like judging one’s self-worth—positively or negatively—based on job performance or professional standing.
Just as our entertainment culture encourages us to self-objectify physically, our work culture pushes us to self-objectify professionally. Americans tend to valorize being driven and ambitious, so letting work take over virtually every moment of your life is concerningly easy. I know many people who talk of almost nothing besides their work; who are saying, essentially, “I am my job.” This may feel more humanizing and empowering than saying “I am my boss’s tool,” but that reasoning has a fatal flaw: In theory, you can ditch your boss and get a new job. You can’t ditch you.
So far, I have been unable to find any published studies on the well-being of professional self-objectifiers. But we can take a clue from physical self-objectification, which has been shown to raise depression and lower problem-solving ability. Common sense tells us that self-objectifying at work is a tyranny every bit as nasty. We become Marx’s heartless work overlord to ourselves, cracking the whip mercilessly, seeing ourselves as nothing more than Homo economicus. Love and fun are sacrificed for another day of work, in search of a positive internal answer to the question “Am I successful yet?” We become simulacra of real people.
And then, when the end inevitably comes—when professional decline sets in—we are left bereft and desiccated. As one CEO self-objectifier par excellence told me, “In the six months after retirement, I went from Who’s Who to Who’s He?”
Are you a self-objectifier in your job or career? Ask yourself a few questions, and answer them honestly.
- Is your job the biggest part of your identity? Is it the way you introduce yourself, or even understand yourself?
- Do you find yourself sacrificing love relationships for work? Have you forgone romance, friendship, or starting a family because of your career?
- Do you have trouble imagining being happy if you were to lose your job or career? Does the idea of losing it feel a little like death to you?
If you answered affirmatively to any or all of these, recognize that you will never be satisfied as long as you objectify yourself. Your career or job should be an extension of you, not vice versa. Two practices can help as you reassess your priorities.
1. Get some space.
Maybe you have been in an unhealthy relationship or two in your life but only recognized this when you had a break from it, whether voluntary or involuntary. Indeed, this human tendency probably contributes to the fact that most trial separations lead to divorce, especially when they last more than a year. Space provides perspective.
Use this principle in your professional life. To begin with, it should be the main goal of your vacation—to get a break from work and spend time with people you love. As obvious as this may sound, that means taking your vacation, and not working during it at all. Your employer should thank you for doing so: I have been a chief executive and can assure you that I wanted only employees who worked with their whole heart and free will. If they needed to leave, I wanted them to leave.
Related to this is the ancient idea of Sabbath-keeping, or taking regular time away from work each week. In religious traditions, rest isn’t just nice to have; it is central to understanding God and ourselves. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day,” the Book of Exodus reads. “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” If God rests from work, maybe you should too.
Such a practice doesn’t have to be religious, and can be done in a lot of ways besides simply avoiding all work on Saturday or Sunday. For example, you can take a small Sabbath each evening by proscribing work and dedicating all your activity to relationships and leisure.
2. Make friends who don’t see you as a professional object.
Many professional self-objectifiers seek out others who admire them solely for their work accomplishments. This is quite natural—it makes me feel good when a person I meet for the first time recognizes me as a columnist for The Atlantic rather than as some random guy—but can easily become a barrier to the formation of healthy friendships, which we all need. By self-objectifying in your friendships, you can make it easier for your friends to objectify you.
This is why having friends outside your professional circles is so important. Striking up friendships with people who don’t have any connection to your professional life encourages you to develop nonwork interests and virtues, and thus be a fuller person. The way to do this goes hand in hand with recommendation No. 1: Don’t just spend time away from work; spend it with people who have no connection to your work.
Maybe challenging your own self-objectification makes you feel uneasy. Honestly, it freaks me out. The reason is simple: We all want to stand out in some way, and working harder than others and being better at our jobs seems a straightforward way to do so. This is a normal human drive, but it can nonetheless lead to destructive ends. Many of my students have confessed to me that they would rather be special than happy, and I have often felt this way as well.
The great irony is that by trying to be special, we end up reducing ourselves to a single quality, and turning ourselves into cogs in a machine of our own making. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” He noted that in the famous Greek myth, Narcissus fell in love not with himself, but with the image of himself. And so it is when we professionally self-objectify: Our work is our medium, and it becomes our message. We learn to love the image of our successful selves, not ourselves as we truly are in life.
Don’t make this mistake. You are not your job, and I am not mine. Take your eyes off the distorted reflection, and have the courage to experience your full life and true self.