Can work make us happy?

Mumbai-based brand consultant Neha Kulkarni says we need a different paradigm to define success

We were brought up to nurture faith in hard work…

To believe that hard work and perseverance lead to success. There’s the American dream that tempts us all, but there’s also the ancient Indian value system that encourages hard work as Karma. ‘Keep doing without the expectation of a result’, is a phrase most Indians have heard. Over time we learned to glorify hard work and attach meaning to it. We started to associate our identity and self-worth with work. We planned our days around 9 to 5. We saved fun for the weekend. Our work wasn’t just an occupation, it defined who we are. Corporations started calling themselves our ‘families’. They made work-life comfortable with their coffee machines and football tables. We attached a sense of nobility to burning the midnight oil for work. Working more made us feel important. So when we looked for meaning and purpose in life, we started looking for it in our work. According to a poll done in 2015, younger workers said they cared less about money and more about fulfilment in their job search.

Then came the pandemic

We started working from home, and our life spilled into our work. We spent more time with our loved ones. And as we contemplated the meaning and the fleetingness of life, we started re-evaluating the role of work in our lives. When our rocky relationship with work still had to recover, we heard about mass lay-offs. Companies that called their employees families were unceremoniously letting their people go. The pandemic cemented our doubts about work and made us disillusioned. We learned quiet quitting and moonlighting, just as we were dealing with burnout.

But while we have learned to question work and grown a healthy scepticism of it, our faith in work has not been replaced by anything else. And this lack of faith leaves us more confused and discontented than before. Even if we’re unhappy with work, can we really be happy with unemployment? If through some mechanism we were able to put the food on the table and feel financially secure, would we still be happy being unemployed? Marx said in his critique of capitalism, that few of us actually need to work because the modern economy is so productive. But rather than seeing this need to not work as freedom, we complain about it masochistically because we haven’t learned to enjoy leisure.

Today, we have AI to make our jobs easier

But instead of seeing this as the advancement it is, there’s a collective undercurrent of panic about our jobs being taken by AI. The panic and discontent don’t just come from financial insecurity. They come from the fear of being irrelevant. Because working makes us feel a part of society and makes us believe that we are contributing to it.

Our disillusionment with work has a lot to do with the fact that work no longer lives up to our lofty expectations from it. We expect work to give us a sense of purpose when we’re languishing. We expect it to make us better and help us grow. And work does that many times — it does have the capacity to bring us joy, a sense of accomplishment, learning, and even a social circle. But it is easy to forget that work is still, in fact, just an ‘occupation‘. And when we assign a higher meaning to work, we put ourselves up to disappointment

Our faith in work has crumbled. But is not believing in anything better than fostering a false belief? It’s our belief that helps us feel anchored and gives us a sense of direction. For us to find contentment, we need a different paradigm that redefines success and fulfilment and does not demonise or penalise leisure. This cannot just be an individual endeavour.

The world’s social fabric needs to change, and perhaps it’s time.

Featured image: West Bengal, by Angshu Purkait / Unsplash

Neha Kulkarni, Brand Strategy Consultant

Neha has been helping brands put consumers at the heart of their business for over 11 years. She currently works out of India as an independent brand strategy consultant. She is culture-curious, an avid reader, and a chai snob

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