Why We Work

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

When paperwork is piling up, and our boss is yelling at us, it’s easy to forget why we’re really working. Believe it or not, we work for selfish reasons. In this post we’ll take a look at exactly what those selfish reasons are.

I wrote this article because I’ve been at the grindstone so much lately, I’d begun to lose sight of why I am working in the first place. When I took the opportunity to stand back and examine the benefits of my graft, I saw something very different than what I normally look for and see. In other words, I hadn’t ‘lifted my head above the parapet’ for an age, and when I did I saw something surprising.

Rather than seeing a growing list of tasks, deadlines, email storms, project plans, etc. I began to see something else: time with family, a moving bank-balance, food on the table, warmth, fellowship, an exciting journey… it was these things that I was working for…. but I had forgotten about them. I’d become a slave to ‘work’.

What Needs Does My Work Satisfy, Anyway?

When I looked at why I work, I was asking myself what needs it satisfies, and which of my needs it satisfies the most.

We prioritize our needs (almost always without knowing we’re doing it.) Abraham Maslow conceived a model that demonstrates how we prioritize, and why – it’s known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s model is drawn as a pyramid that depicts the levels of human needs, psychological and physical.

First Level: Our Basic Needs

At the bottom of the pyramid (where our needs start from) are our Basic needs or Physiological needs. These are: food and water and sex. (These needs not necessarily satisfied at the same time!)

These are the very ‘basics’ of life, as the name suggests. If our work doesn’t satisfy these things (OK, perhaps the first two), then we’re in trouble. And, what’s more, if we feel that these needs are not being satisfied, then it creates the most worry, stress and excitement. Until these needs are satisfied, we’re unlikely to think about anything else.

Second Level: Safety Needs

We need security, order and stability to simply get on with the pursuit of life; otherwise we’re too busy erecting defence barriers or putting our environment into some kind of livable state. When we don’t feel safe, we are in a state of high alert. So we work to provide shelter and a safe environment for our families. We need order to make sure that when we’re not there, things will tick along. We must establish rules and control before we can even think about anything else.

These first two steps are important to our physical and mental well-being.

Third level: Love and Belonging

These are ‘psychological needs’. The degree by which we need these, and the layers above, vary between person to person. Some of us need to feel loved more than others, right? Still, we work to be part of something. Either directly in our work, or as a result of what our work provides (i.e. cash to spend with our family and friends)

Fourth Level: Esteem

Level 4 is achieved when we are content with our accomplishments so far. This is the Esteem level. Low self-esteem is when we don’t feel good about what we have done. Being recognized for our hard work boosts our self-esteem. As does just knowing we’ve done a good job. Sure, many people go through their whole lives without high self-esteem (so it isn’t essential for survival), but it is essential for the next level up.

Fifth Level: Self-Actualization

Way up at the top of the pyramid, self-actualization is satisfied when we reach a state of harmony and understanding with ourselves, our associates and our environment. And our jobs.

We Are Inherently Selfish

Often without knowing it, we are inherently selfish. We take resources from the world (mostly, from other people in a fair exchange) to survive, develop, procreate, enjoy, and relate. When we work, we take money from our employer in exchange for our time and effort. Maslow’s model shows that we prioritize our needs, and our work creates a means to satisfy these needs.

Thing is, we’re wired (most of us) to think about, and achieve, success in satisfying low-order needs first. Once one level is satisfied, we can seek satisfaction above. The point being, if we’re slaving away and forgetting to eat, or not creating a safe home for ourself and our family, we won’t satisfy higher-order needs. We won’t feel good about ourselves. We won’t feel satisfied in respecting others. We won’t get satisfaction from the respect of others. We won’t be fulfilled.

If we’re not feeding our own needs through work, then why are we working? Be Selfish: otherwise, there is no point.

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2 thoughts on “Why We Work”

  1. Mhm, human beings are the most selfish beings in this entire world. No one can blame us, though. It defines us. And yet the simplest answer to the question in title is: for money. As we know, for most of us, money does bring happiness.

    1. Interesting view Jane. Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but I don’t agree that money brings us happiness. Sure – it CAN bring us the things that can THEN bring us happiness. Money brings us shelter, food, water, security, etc more than anything – the basic needs of life. Thanks for your comment!

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