Work and the meaning of life
With millions of jobs lost, philosopher Alain de Botton reflects on why we work, and how we find meaning in our work.
The following is not a full transcript; for full story, listen to audio.Philosopher Alain de Botton has been thinking about what constitutes a meaningful life. For his latest book, "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work," he followed working people around the world, going behind the scenes with fishermen, career counselors, and cookie manufacturers, to offer perspective on the working person's life.
On "The Takeaway," he talks about what he's learned about work and the meaning of life: "Everybody has to work. You can be a best-selling writer, you could retire; but the point is, everybody needs to work because it's right at the core of who we are as modern human beings. You can't get through a conversation with anybody without the person saying to you, 'what do you do?' And they're not just asking you, as it were, for a piece of information, they're asking you for your soul; they're asking you what keeps you going, what kind of a human being are you? Not to have an answer to that is really terrible. That's what makes unemployment so tragic -- it's not just the money, it's the denial of your sheer existence."
In his book, de Botton covers ten very disparate professions and with each, asks the big questions: "What I wanted to do was to give a picture of the modern working economy. We hear words like globalization, etc, but we often don't really know what that really means. So I wanted to make a book that would look at ten very different, deliberately eclectic professions -- I've got everything there from transmission engineering, to accountancy, to rocket science, to people who make cookies ... and threaded through these explorations of particular work places are large questions, like 'what are we doing this for, where is this headed?' And also, a very subtle thing that keeps coming up is, does this deliver happiness, and if it doesn't, how can we inch a little bit closer to what we all want from our work, which is that we don't notice it IS work."
de Botton says meaning is what we all strive for in our work: "I went to hang out with accountants partly because accountancy is the quintessential boring job, and I was challenged by this and I thought it can't be that boring. I mean, really what it is, is incredibly detailed. We live in a world of such complexity that you do get these professions, like accountancy, where practitioners will devote their lives to a question that seems so arcane ... and it does lead on a bad day, to a feeling of disconnection, a feeling that, what is the meaning of this work? Because one of the things I think we're all desperate for in our work is meaning -- what is meaning? I think meaning comes when you feel that through your work, you've made an improvement to somebody's life, or you've reduced their suffering."
And its role in our lives: "We want from our work now what we've always wanted -- which is the sense of connection to other human beings, a sense of helping them, a sense of imposing order on a chaotic world -- that's what we love work for. It distracts us from terrible things, like the fact that we're all going to die, it keeps us focused, and on a good day, we manage to make something which is that little bit better than we manage to be in our private lives and in the rest of our lives."
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.