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Since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, and the work ethic that it spawned, employment has provided an outsized source of meaning for those living in the Western world. “Work was where you became your truest self,” writes the historian James Livingston. “We’ve believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives.” Polling from Gallup Company, for instance, shows that more than 50 percent of American workers “get a sense of identity” from their job.
But as technology continues to improve and more industries — from bookselling to accounting to transportation — become more automated, there’s a good chance we’ll have less work. Oxford University economists project that 47 percent of the total United States workforce is at high risk of being replaced by computerization over the next 20 years. These aren’t just rudimentary jobs that technology is crowding out, either. Over the last decade, machines have learned how to process spoken language, read facial expressions, classify personality types, and even carry out conversations. A recent article published in Fast Company, “Bet You Didn’t See This Coming: 10 Jobs That Will be Replaced by Robots,” presents compelling evidence that journalists, financial analysts, insurance underwriters, and even movie stars may soon be displaced by robots.
There are many questions about a world in which fewer of us have opportunities for traditional work. Some, like how the un- or under-employed will generate an income, are already being addressed. As Drake Baer recently reported for Science of Us, economists and policymakers are starting to seriously consider the feasibility of universal basic income, or “a no-strings-attached monthly payment meant to cover the basic costs of living.” But perhaps an equally important question is that of meaning: In a world with less work, from where will it come? This is a question that big thinkers — the biggest thinkers, really, like former president Barack Obama and author Yuval Harari — are already asking. Answering it will help us to not only prepare for a not-so-distant tomorrow, but also reflect on how we live our lives today.
The answer may be found in self-transcendence, or devoting one’s efforts and energies to something beyond oneself, a concept that has long been perceived as integral to living a meaningful life. Consider, for example, Holocaust survivor and preeminent psychologist Victor Frankl in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning:
I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche … I have coined this term ‘the self-transcendence of human existence.’ It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone other than oneself.
Or, more recently, the author Emily Esfahani Smith, in her new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters:
When people say that their lives have meaning … they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger.
Though there are myriad ways to transcend one’s self, two of the most powerful and practical — each grounded in works of philosophy and psychology and both of which can be found outside of formal employment — are pursuing mastery and performing acts of kindness.
More than 2,000 years ago, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that integral to a meaningful life is striving for arête, or what we might today call excellence or mastery. Aristotle pointed out, however, that achieving arête — be it by throwing oneself fully into a work of art, intellect, or athletics — is not always pleasant: “A virtuous life,” he wrote, “requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”
Centuries later, in his wildly popular Drive, a book that at its core is about what makes people tick, author Daniel Pink makes a similar case: “Mastery,” writes Pink, “is pain.” Yet, like Aristotle, Pink also argues that mastery is meaningful, that the benefits of taking on a challenge out of one’s own volition and losing oneself in an activity are immense.
For a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologist Carol Ryff surveyed more than 300 men and women, in order to identify correlates of well-being. She found that people who had “a feeling of continued development,” and saw themselves as “growing and expanding” were more likely to score high on assessments of life satisfaction and self-esteem than those who did not. Other research shows that when people throw themselves into an activity for the sake of the activity itself — and not for some sort of external reward, like money or fame or Instagram followers — they tend to report long-term well-being and fulfillment.
Attempting to master a craft may seem inherently selfish, but that’s not the case. In interviews with over 100 highly productive scientists, artists, and other creative types, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that many found meaning in their lives precisely because they lost themselves in their pursuit, or because they turned themselves over to it. He coined this “vital engagement,” or a relationship to an activity that manifests when one becomes fully absorbed in it. Meaning, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “derives from the connection of the individual to a tradition, enterprise, and community of practice that lie beyond the self.”
The specific craft need not matter. For some it may be running, for others sculpting, cooking, or playing the cello. What does matter is that you respect and honor the traditions of the craft, pursue long-term progress in it, and participate not for the sake of raising yourself up (i.e., an ego boost) but for the sake of transcending the very notion of your “self” altogether. Writing in his cult classic (and my personal favorite-ever) book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, philosopher Robert Pirsig explains that when an actor becomes so engaged in his or her act that it becomes hard to separate subject from object, pianist from piano, a special kind of Quality emerges. (The capital “Q” is Pirsig’s, not mine; for him, Quality is not an adjective but a unique event in and of itself.) Experiencing this kind of Quality, he writes, is key to a meaningful life.
As meaningful as devoting oneself to mastery may be, devoting oneself to helping others is perhaps even more powerful. (Of course, the two aren’t exclusive.) One of the world’s foremost happiness researchers, Sonya Lyubomirsky, recently told me that her research continues to show that one of the best ways to boost both happiness and meaning is to perform acts of kindness, such as volunteering, mentoring, coaching, or even just writing someone a letter of gratitude. When individuals participate in these activities, she says, they report more positive emotions, both immediately and over time.
A recent series of studies published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, “Prosociality Enhances Meaning in Life,” bears this out. To begin, the psychologist Daryl Van Tongeren and his colleagues asked over 400 participants how often they engage in altruistic endeavors. He then asked them how meaningful their lives felt. Those who were more altruistic reported more meaning in their lives.
Next, Van Tongeren conducted a case-control experiment: that is, he took a group of individuals, measured their sense of meaning at baseline, and then instructed half the participants to engage in altruistic acts and the other half not to. The participants who partook in the altruistic acts reported significantly greater increases in meaning versus those who did not, suggesting a causal relationship, or that acts of kindness are not merely associated with but actually create meaning.
Though the exact mechanism by which performing acts of kindness enhances meaning is unknown, researchers speculate that doing so makes us feel more connected to and rooted in community. Additionally, doing nice things for others affords us a purpose that is beyond ourselves and the opportunity to contribute to a greater cause — both of which are associated with increased meaning.
The key to a meaningful life, it seems, is to think and do less about ourselves. This message feels particularly relevant. Instead of increasingly devoting our time — and if projections about job-replacing technology are right, we may soon have more of it — to ego-boosting pursuits, we’d be wiser to pursue mastery and focus on helping others. Government policy can still push to create jobs in the short term, but in the long term it ought to prepare for a world without them by encouraging these activities. The more we can lose ourselves in our crafts and communities, the fuller our lives will become.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.