Humans need life to have meaning. The meaning we need has to come from someone or something. But what is meaning?
Meaning, immersion in culture and the culture of work
One of the biggest things I’ve learned by helping people who are deeply dissatisfied with their working lives is that many do not want to admit that work provides a great deal of meaning to their lives. Our family, friends and society in general tell us that our life’s meaning is rightfully found in being a good parent, being a loving spouse, serving our country or community, or selfless acts of charity.
We’re told that no gravestones ever say, “I should have spent more time at the office.”
If our life’s meaning is never to be found in work, then why should we care about being satisfied with our working lives? To be happy, do we just need to be a better parent, better spouse or spend more time helping those less fortunate?
The answer to all of these is, Yes. Nearly everything in our lives can be a source of meaning if we can immerse ourselves in it, and if it can make us feel like valued members of it. Those things that we are able to immerse ourselves in are called cultures.
Cultures are the norms of social behavior of humans within societies and include the material things that come about because of that behavior, things like technology, architecture, and art, for example. It also includes what others and we think we should or shouldn’t do. Our culture provides a view of the world called a cultural worldview. That cultural worldview is like eyeglasses that we never take off. All that we understand about our world is filtered and transformed by those glasses. We see, interpret and understand, our world through our cultural worldview.
It’s said that humans are unique because we are social animals. But that’s not accurate, since many animals form social groups and exhibit specific social behavior. What actually makes humans unique is our culture. And, it’s our immersion in culture that gives our lives meaning.
Immersion in culture
For thousands of years, religion and spiritual beliefs were, and still are for many, the most powerful and influential cultures. These cultures provide a cultural worldview that comforts their subscribers. They also provide a way for their subscribers to be valued within the cultures as good people.
About 400 years ago, science took hold in a period called The Enlightenment and began showing us how the physical world works. Today, a few people find more comfort in science than they do in religion, but most people still need more than the cold, hard facts of science to give meaning to their existence. Thankfully, humans truly are experts at creating culture. We created a rich and diverse menu of culture that is able to comfort everyone. We are comforted—comforted by giving meaning to our lives—when we immerse ourselves in one or more cultures of meaning. Work is one culture on that very big menu.
Immersion in the culture of work
Most people would not say that working is the primary source of meaning to their earthly existence. They would not say that immersion in their job, occupation or career furnishes them with an orderly and comforting view of the universe and gives them the strength they need to carry on with their daily lives. Most people will say that their children, intimate partner, spiritual beliefs, friends and family, or their own personal system of beliefs, provides the primary source of meaning in their lives. But when they keep working down that list, many people will eventually start talking about work, if they are being honest.
When our working lives cause us to feel strong emotions, like joy, anger, comfort or anxiety, then we are getting some of our life’s meaning from work. The stronger those emotions, the more we are immersed in our working lives and the more meaning we get from work.