Fall 2011 issue -- Americans are perhaps exceptional in the emphasis they put on creating a better tomorrow and a better self. Counseling, therapy, and self-help books have long been a booming business in the U.S. But what makes for a better self or life? How ought we to measure success?
One view is that American affluence is a manifestation of a shallow obsession with personal success and acquiring more “stuff.” This obsession, some say, traps us in a rat race, blinds us to what is truly meaningful in life, plunges us into conflict with our fellows, and leaves us spiritually empty.
But the problem is neither with affluence nor the goal of success. Nor is the problem found solely in external conditions that we ought to change. In the words of Shakespeare, “The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.” Nor should we follow the path of Eastern acolytes who renounce this world with all its joys. Rather, we should look to the source of affluence: work, entrepreneurship, and creativity, the love of which requires engagement with the world and results in satisfaction with our lives.
Among the major factors in America’s success as a country have been the goals of the millions of immigrants who settled here and the values they passed along to their descendents. Dissatisfied with poverty and a lack of opportunity in their homelands, they came here seeking the chance to prosper through their own hard work and efforts. Dissatisfied with repression by governments, religious authorities, feudal systems, or cultural norms, they came here seeking autonomy and the satisfaction of running their own farms, their own enterprises, and their own lives.
Add to this ethos a government generally limited to protecting life, liberty, and property, and America became the land that unleashed human potential on an unprecedented scale in human history, allowing more individuals than ever before to pursue the their own happiness.
But there was another current in American culture that contributed to the country’s economic success yet contradicted that goal. That current is best described in Max Weber’s most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This religious ethos saw work not merely as a means to one’s own betterment but also as a religious duty, as a form of devotion to God.
In some cases adherents to that ethos took it to mean that they should view their work as an important, morally significant, or even sacred calling. But others took it to mean sticking to work that was not fulfilling—indeed work that one loathed—not because it was the only available way to make a living or provide for a family but, rather, out of grim, joyless, dour duty. Under this ethos, leisure was frowned upon, since resting on the fruits of one’s productive efforts meant a limit to production. This workaholism might have been good for the economy, but it was bad for personal happiness.
No doubt most Americans with this duty ethos had mixed motives for their actions. No doubt personal prosperity, pride in their own efforts, and enjoyment of their own lives combined with the guilt-inducing belief that they must be productive for heaven’s sake. Mixed motives like these continue to have detrimental effects in the culture to this day.
The pursuit of personal happiness and prosperity, combined with a Protestant work ethic and a free market system to put America on the road to economic and social transformation. For much of the 19th century we were a republic of small farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. The farm economy especially reinforced the duty ethos; you might not like getting up at daybreak to milk the cows but come rain or shine or snow, you’ve gotta get up and do it!
The 20th century’s industrial revolution, urbanization, and consumer-based economy created a world of new opportunities to prosper through personal initiative and creativity. Rags-to-riches stories became part of the American narrative.
Critics of industrialization and urbanization—not only in America but in Europe as well—attacked capitalism from left and right. Marxists bemoaned the alienation of workers—formerly skilled artisans or yeomen farmers—from their labor. Marxists also predicted that capitalism would create a handful of rich individuals and masses of poor.
Conservative critics worried about the breakdown of communities. Individuals, cut loose from the anchors of local culture and traditions, would lose their focus in life and lose the moral habits that such communities instilled and enforced. The conservatives also feared that the work ethic—so associated with Protestantism—would break down as religious faith faded.
The twentieth century, especially the post-World War II era, showed the Marxists to be wrong about the distribution of wealth. Thanks to capitalism every household could have automobiles, radios, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, air conditioners, computers . . . you name it. The shopping mall became a symbol of American success.
Conservative critiques came up significantly short as well. Place-centered communities indeed became less important—America was, from the start the most mobile country in the world. But mass communications, inexpensive transportation, and, in the past two decades, the Internet, meant that individuals could easily stay in touch with family and friends and that religious-, affinity-, or interest-based communities could flourish.
But what of the conservative charge about the loss of meaning in life and of a moral core? After all, the late 20th century indeed resulted in social upheaval, family breakdown, and the emergence of an anything goes, sex-and-drugs, instant-gratification culture. Many kids today aspire to be rich and famous, but not through hard work, personal struggle, and entrepreneurship. They want a reality-show version of work where they need do nothing except, perhaps, live out their existence on TV for the world to see like the cast of Jersey Shore, an existence that in the end will prove spiritually hollow. Seems like this might also be a sign of Marxist alienation!
In reaction, many, influenced by Buddhism, say that we must not look to “things” to make us happy. For some this means reducing consumption. For others it means putting the Earth, environment, or nature ahead of people the way many put God or some imagined higher realm first. Serve Gaia! Others embraced the secular religious doctrine of service to others; indeed, setting aside self-interest to help the community has become a mantra of presidential candidates. Community service became a mandate in many high schools.
But what was missed in this cultural confusion was an understanding of the foundations of human morality and of what principles should guide our lives. Production indeed must precede consumption because production is the principal means of human survival. But production should not be approached within the framework of a Protestant duty ethos.
Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead offers a searing critique of America’s cultural tangles. In it, cutting-edge architect Howard Roark has to struggle for years against a culture that does not share his philosophy of building or appreciate its aesthetics. He is ridiculed and is often without work, forced to take manual labor jobs rather than be able to work at the profession he’s passionate about. But he gradually finds clients who appreciate his work, which enables him to build and to operate a successful architectural firm.
Roark’s former classmate, Peter Keating, becomes an architect because his mother feels it would be a respectable profession. At least for a while, Keating acquires fame and fortune by giving the public schlock. But after a time he finds himself dissatisfied, slipping, unable to meet new technical demands in a profession he never liked anyway.
In a meeting between the two, Roark explains to the thoroughly miserable Keating, “Before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences.”
Rand, through Roark, was expressing a truth that has been appreciated by many for millennia but rarely articulated clearly and without appeal to the zeitgeist. Roark does not work principally for money, not that there’s anything wrong with making money. Nor does Roark work to impress others. Nor is he working out of sheer duty, trudging stoically through his days with gritted teeth in order to serve God or society. Nor does Roark renounce the world and all desire.
He works because he loves the creative process at work within him, the process that he directs. Roark explains: “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.”
Today Rand’s insights are being proven right.
Recent decades have seen the rise of new research into how the brain functions, and of the fields of evolutionary and positive psychology. This work is discovering what many thinkers, most notably Aristotle, have observed and argued for philosophically. These discoveries about how our physiology and consciousness work have been applied to give us guides for how to live more fulfilling, satisfying lives; indeed, there now is a field referred to as “happiness studies."
Psychologist Robert White’s studies, starting in the late 1950s, found that people and even other mammals have a basic drive to “make things happen,” an “effectance motive.” We have a basic need for competence and mastering skills. Look at children playing from the youngest age. They are trying to do things with their toys, not just look at them. White sees making things to be as basic as the sex drive.
One of the best works on the subject of work and “doing” is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. First published in 1990, it documents his and his colleagues’ research into the perennial problem of happiness. He observes that while we enjoy unprecedented levels of health and material prosperity, reported levels of happiness have plateaued. In fact, anxiety and boredom are new problems that we face. What gives?
Csikszentmihalyi maintains that he has discovered—“rediscovered” he admits—that happiness is not something that just happens nor is it something we can look for directly. He agrees with Viktor Frankl, quoting that writer as saying: “Don’t aim at success . . . . For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue . . . as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
Csikszentmihalyi first saw this phenomenon in individuals in a limited group of professions. His studies began by looking at artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons, and other skilled individuals who become “so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great costs, for the sheer sake of doing it.” When completely involved in an activity, “the ego falls away.”
Interestingly, one can find similar examples in history. Contemporaries of Isaac Newton portrayed the great genius as forgetting to eat, forgetting what time of day it was, forgetting everything when he was deep in his work. And one might see the phenomenon, for example, in a skilled carpenter absorbed in a creative effort. In other words, the phenomenon is not restricted to certain professions or types of work.
This experience Csikszentmihalyi terms “flow” or optimal experience. It comes from being in control of one’s actions. It is not a passive state or feeling. Rather, it involves actively stretching mind and body as far as one can. (This is reminiscent of Aristotle’s description of happiness or flourishing as “an activity of the soul.”) In the long run, “optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery—or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life.”
Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues found that optimal experience comes when one has high skills that are challenged to their limit. Low skills facing tough challenges lead to anxiety. High skills with little challenge result in boredom.
People are not truly satisfied by getting slim or rich but, rather, by “feeling good about their lives.” Further, because “optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity.” (The early twentieth century Italian thinker Benedetto Croce said “Eternity is in the moment for those who know how to place it there.”)
Let’s parse Csikszentmihalyi’s insights. First, the subject of flow is the individual, not the group, not society, but each of us as unique, conscious entities. Second, the experience results from one’s own efforts and one’s control of one’s mind, i.e., one’s consciousness. And third, the optimal experience or flow can be equated with happiness. In other words, this is not Buddhistic annihilation of all desire nor is it joyless, puritanical duty. Rather, it is a quest for a higher, more meaningful experience of one’s self, of one’s world, and of joy through the creative application one’s effort in work.
This sounds like Rand’s “you must love the doing.”
Let’s also clear up some terminology lest we trip over it. When Csikszentmihalyi says that in the flow experience “the ego falls away” or quotes Frankl concerning a “course greater than oneself,” he means that mundane matters are not in one’s consciousness during optimal experience. One is not focused on one’s self because one’s self is focused on the thoroughly engaging task at hand. In The Fountainhead we see Roark, having been expelled from college, forgetting an important meeting with his dean because he spots a mistake in one of his designs for a building. He spends the next hour absorbed in correcting it. When it comes to his work, Roark doesn’t suffer out of sheer stoicism but gets into the flow for a joy so great that all else, while he’s working, seems trivial.
In that novel one character says to Roark, “After all, it’s only a building. It’s not the combination of holy sacrament, Indian torture and sexual ecstasy that you seem to make it.” Roark’s response: “Isn’t it?”
Csikszentmihalyi and his researchers find that the mind can attend only to a certain amount of information at a time. A conversation takes up about one-third of our attention. That’s why we might be able to follow several conservations at once but not five or six. In the flow state all our attention is focused on a particular task. Everything else must be left aside.
Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of flow is highly individualistic. It is based on a given individual’s abilities and level of competence. Any particular surgeon, symphony conductor, or carpenter will find satisfaction in work at levels of challenge unique to each as an individual.
One might ask how these insights about the ultimate experience for “doing” relate to work that at any given moment might not be the all-consuming joyous experience that one might want. Some work can be routine and boring. Ever sit through a staff meeting?
Csikszentmihalyi’s insights do not exhaust what we might say about our relationship to our work. The significance that we attach to work is important as well.
Jonathan Haidt’s research aids our understanding of “doing,” particularly the research contained in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. He begins by noting two traditional views of happiness. “One is that happiness comes from getting what we want, but we all know . . . that such happiness is short-lived. A more promising hypothesis is that happiness comes from within and cannot be obtained by making the world conform to your desires.” This latter approach—found in Buddhists and Stoic philosophers—requires “people to break their emotional attachments to people and events.”
Haidt argues that both approaches miss the point. In particular he takes on the Buddhist view that is so fashionable in some circles. He cites philosopher Robert Solomon concerning detachment and avoiding passion to the effect that “life without passion is not human life.” And concerning the notion that happiness comes from getting what you want, understood as material things, Haidt cites research that shows what common sense suggests but that the “comes from within” crowd would likely reject. Some external conditions really do significantly help or hinder the quest for happiness. For instance a perpetually noisy environment can make concentration and thus the ability to think pretty tough.
At a more basic level, Haidt argues that “Happiness comes from within, and happiness comes from without.” He cites his own research, Csikszentmihalyi’s, and others’ to argue, “Happiness comes from between.” It comes from our engagement with the world. And along with engagement with people, engagement with one’s work is central to one’s success in leading a happy life. Haidt quotes Shakespeare: “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” Sounds pretty Roark-like!
Haidt considers three views of work. You might you see your work as just a job. If so, you’re in it for the money and to pay the bills, and your lips often utter that familiar phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday!” You have hobbies and interests outside of work that give your life meaning. Or you might think of your work as a career. If so, you’re often looking for advancement, promotion, and prestige. Your work can energize you, though sometimes you do get that rat race feeling. But if, instead, you think of your work as a calling, you find work intrinsically fulfilling. You really love it and aren’t a clock watcher.
Haidt cites research that seems counter-intuitive to a narrow understanding of certain work functions. Some hospital workers sweeping floors or emptying bedpans could see their work as part of the whole process of healing the sick and thus see their work as a calling. You thus can love the doing if you see your functions serving some important purpose.
Here a calling looks like the Protestant notion of work as significant or even sacred. But in these cases the work is not pursued out of joyless duty. Rather, workers at even menial jobs can see their work as important and take pride in it for its real effects.
Haidt’s insights concerning how we might see significance in our work and Csikszentmihalyi’s insights concerning how work can result in the optimal experience of “flow” are not mutually exclusive—they complement one another well. Sounds like how Howard Roark experienced his work!
This analysis brings us back to our cultural confusion over which goals are worthy of pursuit and how we ought to measure success. Loving the doing seems to be the key, documented by much new research.
Work should not and need not be a matter of dour duty; while there is an element of that in American culture, Americans have tended to look to their own happiness and to try to break the “Protestant” work chain that ties one to the joyless. Nor is work simply a manifestation of a shallow, superficial and, ultimately, unsuccessful search for instant gratification that, in the end, sees work as a burden that gets in the way of the whim of the moment. Nor need one turn one’s back on the world and seek annihilation in non-feeling and non-striving as the alternative.
Rather, one should understand the meaning in one’s work and seek work in which one sees meaning. One should seek the optimal experience, and get into the flow, in what one loves to do.
This understanding of “the doing” and of work gives us tools to help individuals find their own way to happiness. And a future society of such individuals will finally fulfill the American enterprise of creating a country where happiness can be experienced by all.