Reducing our Dignity Deficit: The Importance of Being (Happily) Employed
Just before the New Year, a friend quit the retail job she’d long disliked to focus on finding work that she actually enjoyed. I applauded her guts.
Not just because of the financial risk, but because it takes a lot of moxie to whip the rug out from under your career when you have nowhere to land.
Her decision wasn’t easy, and the nation’s high unemployment rate added a twist to her choice.
She felt a little guilty giving up a job while so many people were desperately trying to get one, a situation that begged a bigger question: Is aspiring to love your work inappropriate, even selfish, when so many people can’t even find a job?
For out-of-work individuals edging closer to their own version of a fiscal cliff—no income but mounting bills—an honest day’s work is, as The New York Times recently phrased it, “a dream to many…”
With unprecedented numbers of American families having to choose between paying for rent and food, it feels uncomfortable to dare to dream for something more than a paycheck.
I thought back to what my dad told me when I was young and pondering what I wanted to be when I grew up: “Just remember, kid, once you have bread on the table, you start worrying about your psyche.”
He was cautioning me that once people can afford basics such as food and a place to live, we inevitably move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and ask ourselves if we’re happy.
The message I got was not to pursue a career, or take a job, only for the income. Again, easier said than done when the economy is booming.
After a few missteps, I eventually found my own version of career bliss as a business writer, but my heart always went out to people who toiled away at jobs they disliked.
Many had the courage to change, I believed, they just didn’t know what alternatively happy work looked like.
To help figure it out, I interviewed dozens of women who were each at a moment in her career when she could honestly say that she loved her job. My job was to ask why and share insights with other women starving for a similar taste of on-the-job joy.
As stories poured out of these self-proclaimed happy working women—a late-in-life flight attendant, a suburban producer, a born saleswoman, a teenage restauranteur, an accidental inventor, a rural teacher, an Emmy-winning actress, an x-rated retailer, a South Pole chef, a pioneering truck driver, a faithful book store owner, a re-invigorated marketer, a determined lawyer, a surviving artist, a widowed consultant, and a bevy of ambitious executives—I was moved by the path by which each found her calling.
I profiled 100 women in a book, and now as an eBook, Happy at Work: Wisdom from Women who Love Their Jobs, because beyond the women’s inspiring journeys, timeless themes stood out.
Each theme happened to begin with the letter P. No, not pay, not power, and not passion. The common traits that bubbled up were less sexy, but definitely more enduring: process, purpose, and people.
Specifically, these women loved their jobs because, as I saw it:
1) They were skilled at but still challenged by their job’s main activities (the process);
2) They felt good about why they did those activities (the purpose); and
3) They liked, or at the very least respected and were respected by, those with whom they worked (the people).
This trifecta of intellectual engagement, emotional fulfillment, and social esteem appeared to be the happiness bull’s eye when it came to work.
My conclusion is hardly scientific, but it points to an undeniable truth: work is personal. The byproducts of what we do all day seep into our head and hearts, not just into our bank accounts.
More than making us a living, work makes up a huge chunk of our life, so disliking what we do every day takes an emotional toll.
When it comes to boosting our self-worth, work works! We need it for our bread as well as our psyches, and ignoring this inevitable link between jobs and emotional well-being is to ignore the non-monetary costs incurred by being unhappy at work, or for that matter being unemployed.
It’s well documented that disengaged workers are less productive on the job. But consider the byproduct when thousands of unemployed citizens have no job to go to each day.
A cumulative lack of confidence sets in, and not just in the economy, but in ourselves, creating a sort of national dignity deficit. It’s important to bridge these emotional divides, for the unhappily employed and unemployed alike.
Not to try is to short-change our lives, as well as our country, because intrinsic to the promise of the American Dream is our right to pursue happiness—and not just on vacations or weekends, but on weekdays, too!
One of the happy working women I interviewed—the daughter of sharecroppers who became the first African-American female judge to sit on the Wisconsin court of general jurisdiction—expressed this notion beautifully:
“Through their hard work and good citizenship, my parents led us to believe they did not want us to stop pursuing our own dreams. ‘You are worthy,’ they told us. I grew up believing I had a right to share in the American Dream. It was mine.”
Her dreams knew no limits.
So, to answer my original question: If you’re employed, be thankful you have a job (and do what you can to help those who don’t find one), but it is absolutely acceptable, indeed, it is healthy, to keep striving for that bulls’s eye, a happy day’s work.
After all, you’re worth it.