Last Labor Day, my local paper (the Fayetteville Observer) published this quote from Samuel Johnson:  “Labor, if it were not necessary for existence, would be indispensable for the happiness of man.”  I subsequently gave some thought to the connection between human work and happiness.

It seems that many in our society view their jobs as interfering with rather than enhancing their happiness.  I notice a fair number of my friends complain on Facebook about having to go to work or about how their work day is going.  Such complaints seem particularly common among young adults.  They would probably say that they work just for the money, but it’s also possible that work gives them a sense of purpose and increases their self-esteem even though they don’t particularly want to be there.  So, despite their complaints, there may be something about work besides the remuneration that contributes to their happiness.

Our culture is heavily influenced by Christian views of work, including the idea that work is central to what it is to be human.  This belief comes from the Biblical account of Creation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Gen. 2: 15).  The medieval church believed that, just as Adam was assigned by God to tend the garden, some individuals were called by God to fill a religious office.  These persons were said to have a “vocation,” the term being derived from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call or summon.   A person so called was to leave secular life behind and enter full-time service to God as a priest, monk, or nun.  The Protestant Reformation expanded the idea of vocation by claiming that it’s not only those entering religious offices who are called.  For Luther and Calvin, there was no distinction between the sacred and secular.  To them, all activities are charged with religious significance, and God calls each of us to serve others in some particular way.  Our well-being depends on us responding willingly to this call.  I suspect that Samuel Johnson, living as he did a couple centuries after the Reformation, was heavily influenced by the Protestant conception of work.  Thus, the “happiness” he alludes to in the above quote may have the connotation of fulfillment from doing what God intends for us to do.

The centuries that have passed since Johnson’s day haven’t been all that kind to the notion that human work is meaningful and fulfilling.  The industrial revolution replaced skilled craftsmen with automatons, drearily repeating the same mindless tasks.  The belief that work is a sacred endeavor gradually gave way to a more secular understanding.  Max Weber, the German sociologist, described the modern world as being characterized by progressive rationalization; that is, the basis for action has become efficiency, not morality, tradition, or religion.  The world of work is one of the primary places this shift in the reasons impelling action has occurred.  As Weber described it, the Protestant Work Ethic that drove European productivity was originally a means of serving God but eventually thinned into a belief that industriousness is a virtue.

Harvey Cox

Reflecting on this notion of rationalization led me to pull from my bookshelf The Secular City, an analysis of secularization in the modern Western world published in 1965 by American theologian Harvey Cox.  Far from lamenting the diminishing influence of religion on the modern worker, Cox thought that the process of secularization hadn’t gone far enough.  He wrote, “Even in technopolitan culture we still often hold to the proposition that having some kind of job is an indispensable character-building activity and perhaps even an act of religious devotion.”  He adds, “The pay we derive from our job is a pat on the head administered by Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  Since that invisible hand is the closest many people get to Calvin’s providential God (from whom it is directly descended), the job has a sacred value.”  Though clinging to the sacred might be harmless enough in a society where there are enough jobs to go around, Cox believed that modern technological society would increasingly be one in which a subset of the population could produce sufficient goods for all.  He believed that we would only be able to get rid of the outmoded notion that everyone should work if we stopped believing that work served a religious or metaphysical purpose.  Freed of its sacred component, work would also be freed of the expectation that we should all have jobs provided by the marketplace.  Those not needed for producing goods could then devote themselves to various activities that would human well-being.

I think that the problem is the opposite of what Cox claimed.  It’s not that we Americans see work as sacred; it’s that we don’t see work as sacred enough.  Everyone needs a purpose; seeing our lives as having significance to God is one of the most powerful sources of such purpose.  Having Adam Smith’s invisible hand make the sign of the dollar over us is insufficient to infuse meaning into otherwise vapid lives. Employees who have only a anemic and ill-defined sense that there is something besides a paycheck that gives value to their work are likely to be dissatisfied.  If, as Cox suggests, society needs to give to those for whom the marketplace doesn’t supply jobs other activities that would contribute to human welfare, wouldn’t a belief that such activities fulfill a sacred mandate be a powerful motivation for taking these on?  Whatever tasks we devote our days to, a conviction that such tasks have a sacred dimension would contribute to the sense of happiness that Johnson thought would result from our labor.