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Psychologist David Myers on Fulfilling Work

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David Myers is a psychologist and the author of a very widely used introductory psychology textbook. He has written a book on how to become happy called The Pursuit of Happiness which provides concrete advice about how to become happy based on hundreds of empirical studies. In this post, I will summarize the chapter in that book dealing with fulfilling work and provide some integration of his points with Objectivist principles and values.

To begin with, Myers notes that people who are unemployed demonstrate remarkably lower low being than people who have jobs. Even people who have mundane jobs are happier than people who don't have any job at all. However, it is better to have fulfilling work, and it is even better to work in an environment with supportive people. The psychological effects of fulfilling or unfulfilling work are especially pronounced in single people, who don't have a home life to counterbalance the positive or negative effects of their work life.

This is consistent with the Objectivist view that morality requires productivity. Productivity contributes to our self esteem, which contributes to our overall well being. People who don't work don't experience themselves as productive, and therefore have lower self esteem and overall well being than people who work.

Myers identifies three benefits that work can provide to one's psychological well being: a sense of identity, community, and purpose. Work can provide a sense of identity because it enables us to say that we are worthwhile as a person, because we contribute to society in a specific role. Work can provide a sense of community if we work with other people who are supportive of us. And work can add purpose to our lives by giving us a worthwhile central purpose in life. People who experience a sense of identity, community, and purpose in their work almost always say that they would continue to work even if they inherited a large fortune. Myers also says that work can provide a sense of personal control if we are in a position where we have some control over our hours and goals and are allowed some input into decisions.

These are pretty clearly important benefits from an Objectivist perspective. An Objectivist gets a sense of identity from his work because productive work is a central value to him. A sense of community is also a legitimate benefit from an Objectivist point of view, because it is legitimate to want to have one's work valued by other people and achieve the psychological visibility that comes from working on a team toward a shared goal. And purpose is a central Objectivist value, so much so that Rand enshrined it in her slogan "reason, purpose, self esteem."

Myers next explains an important psychological concept relevant to fulfilling work called flow. According to Myers, when our skills are too low or we don't have enough time to meet our challenges, we feel stressed and anxious. When our skills are too high for our challenges, we feel boredom. Between these states is a state called flow, where we perceive ourselves as having high skills and meeting high challenges that match our skills. When we are in flow, we are completely absorbed in the task at hand, and time passes without our noticing. Flow has been studied in a variety of different groups of people across the world, and psychologists have found that people who spend a lot of time in flow, meeting a series of successively more demanding challenges as their skills improve, develop higher self esteem.

Flow is obviously relevant to the Objectivist ethics. For one thing, it provides confirmation of Rand's concept of "reason, purpose, self esteem," where rising self esteem causes and is caused by a series of increasingly demanding purposes. It is also relevant to Rand's view that people should be ambitious and continually expand their skill set and knowledge.

So, to summarize:

  1. People who don't work have lower well being than people who work, and people who have fulfilling work are happier still.
  2. The main psychological benefits that we can get out of work are a sense of identity, community, purpose, and personal control.
  3. It is important to spend as much of our work time in flow as possible.

The whole chapter is basically an extended presentation of evidence for the central tenet of the Objectivist ethics, "reason, purpose, self esteem."

I hope you found this post useful, and I look forward to your thoughtful comments.

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