Work is integral to our well-being

Editorial by Robin Barstow - a clinical social worker in southern Maine.

Some say that we work to make a “living.” Yet, what is “a living”? It might be an income to house, clothe and feed a family. It might be more. It might include progress to better ourselves and inspire our children. This may explain why, in addition to paid work, we work in the garden, in the house and volunteer.

Some of this work may be necessary to maintain domestic order, but in many cases, we may be filling an inner need for recognition and respect. I believe that to work at making “a living” brings us happiness in all kinds of ways. The history of the way we work is evolutionary in nature. Work has been around far longer than the human race itself, emerging in its organized form in the practices of our early ancestors.

Archaeologists and anthropologists show us that early societies began with tool making (stone axes) and art (cave paintings and pottery). Knowledge of prehistoric society shows that work and occupation have always provided us with a common purpose to improve our lives.

In the 19th century, mental health professionals began to see work also as important for happiness and psychological well-being. Adolf Meyer, a psychiatrist who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1892, formulated this idea into what we now call occupational therapy. He believed that, “the whole of human organization has its shape in a kind of rhythm. It is not enough that our hearts should beat in a useful rhythm … There are many other rhythms which we must be attuned to … [such as] night and day … which our organism must be able to balance even under difficulty.

The only way to attain balance in all this is actual doing, actual practice… To get the pleasure and pride of achievement and feeling of worthwhile-ness … a little effort and well fitted use of time is the basic remedy for … hopeless depression.”

Today, the basic assumptions from this field are that occupations have a positive effect on health and well-being, that an occupation creates structure, organizes time and brings meaning to life both culturally and personally.

Occupations are individual, yet from birth to old age, the need to participate in everyday occupations is so integral to our happiness people might be called “occupational beings.” With this in mind, I recently met with a retired gentleman who was suffering from severe depression but could not at first understand why he was depressed. He had a very good pension, was in good health, had a loving wife and grown children who lived nearby.

This gentleman had had a good job that he had enjoyed, but now was spending his days deeply depressed. I practice cognitive behavioral therapy, and so we began addressing what he would like to do with his days.He knew immediately that he wanted to “give back” and to volunteer in his community. Something was preventing him. We started by looking for stressful thoughts. He was able to identify one and stated, “I’m old and so no one will want me.” We questioned this, and he could see that there was no evidence to support the thought. With time, he was ready to test it, by walking into a school, despite being very nervous. He wanted to volunteer in a literacy program (he had struggled as a young student with reading and wanted to help children who might benefit from extra time practicing). The school signed him up immediately to participate in their literacy program, and he began to feel better.

This gentleman had challenged himself and his depression disappeared as he felt himself grow with the challenge. When we work at something, we focus on a task at hand and we feel we are a part of something.

Even if we don’t always like our work it can feel good to provide for our families financially, with what we are earning, and psychologically, with what we are modeling.

Trying to define good work, we face the truth that happiness in almost anything we do requires practice and determination. Maintaining respect for a kind of duty to do our best can be immensely satisfying and valuable. Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work … work and love, that’s all there is … love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” So, it seems that our work and occupations, if connected to natural, wholesome rhythms, profoundly contribute to the meaning and happiness in life.