Work and human flourishing

While attending the University of Utah in the 1970s, I became acquainted with the work of Dr. Frederick Herzberg, who had conducted groundbreaking research in the field of motivation in the workplace: in other words, factors associated with work performance and satisfaction. Far from being an obscure, esoteric pursuit, Professor Herzberg’s efforts are the topic of publications widely read for nearly five decades. Originally published in 1968, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” continues to be one of the most widely requested article reprints in the 93-year history of the Harvard Business Review.

Among Professor Herzberg’s voluminous writings on the topic is “Motivation to Work versus Incentive to Labor.” In this article, composed with his associate, Dr. Margaret Whitney Miner, for publication in the January 1990 Journal of Sociological Studies (USSR Academy of Sciences), the authors observed,

Hannah Arendt first clarified the distinction between the words WORK and LABOR and what they stand for in The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 78-80):

… every European language, ancient and modern, contains two etymologically unrelated words for what we have come to think of as the same activity, and retains them in the face of their persistent [apparently] synonymous usage….

Arendt gives the following examples:

… Latin laborare versus facere or fabricare

German arbeiten versus werken

French travailler versus œuvrer

English labor versus work

Nouns derived from the latter words relate to works of art, productivity, creativity and growth in contrast to the more repetitive, painful and laborious struggles reflected in the first set of terms.

Herzberg and Miner continue,

Since labor is boring, repetitive and unpleasant, people will labor only to avoid the pains of deprivation and disapproval. Incentives for labor must be changed often to move people in different cultures and at different periods of history. In contrast, human beings in all cultures and at all periods of history have been motivated to work by their own ability to do a challenging job, provided they were given a challenging job to do.

Still regarded as foundational by many, these concepts correspond to insights expressed by commentators on contemporary culture. Among them, Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has written extensively about the significance of work and human flourishing. In a recent interview, Brooks was asked about his belief that work is a blessing and how he would explain his contention that “all honest work is a sanctified pursuit.” He replied,

Work is using our talents and our passions to build up ourselves and the world around us. Hard work, understood not primarily as a means to money but as something of intrinsic value, is a medium by which we can serve others and grow in virtue.

This is a vitally important principle for those of us who are believers. But you don’t need to believe in God to believe that work is integral to living a full and meaningful life. The idea of offering up your effort and your projects for a higher purpose – that has universal resonance. It speaks to something deep in our humanity.

In his recent book The Conservative Heart, Brooks asserts that

The conservative heart…emphatically [sees] work as a blessing. … That is why we admire hard work, admonish people who slack off, and support policies such as work requirements for welfare. We understand that when society empowers people to work for social assistance, we help those people twice. First, through welfare, we are helping meet their immediate material needs. And second, through hard work, we are helping them earn success – the key to a fulfilling and dignified life.

… It is the mission of the conservative movement – the reason for our very existence – to make it possible for every single American to earn his or her own way.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Stan Rasmussen. Thanks for listening.

This post is a transcript of the Sutherland Soapbox, a weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found below.

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