This post is one in a series of posts called “the new normal” that looks to more truthfully define “normal mental health” and to distinguish “normal mental health” from “excellent mental health.” In this post we look at the relationship between work and mental health.
There isn’t much new to be said about the problem of work. Most people must earn a living. Fairly often that work is not interesting, taxes us physically and emotionally, runs counter to our values, feels like a waste of our precious time on earth, or all of the above. There’s the problem, simply put. What’s the answer?
Flowery rhetoric and wishful thinking aside, there is none.
Therefore it should be part of our educational process to help children look at their impending fifty years of work in a way that is at once real, communicating the upside and the downside of different jobs, and that offers smart tactics for choosing the kind of work that might prove most palatable.
It is really not so hard to imagine what these smart tactics might be. However they can’t be implemented because it is society’s unconscious intention to ensure that not too many people flock to the interesting work. How many people do we want writing novels or deep sea diving? How many people can we allow to escape the fate of an office cubicle? We need millions of office workers, factory workers, service workers and salespeople and only a handful of folks in the interesting jobs (all talk about our tens of millions of “cultural creatives” notwithstanding).
A complicated strategy to teach children these truths, if we wanted them taught, might be to have every child of a certain age, say twelve or thirteen, spend a year cycling for a week at a time through forty or fifty jobs and professions, shadowing emergency room doctors, corporate lawyers, fresco painters, farmers, park rangers, corporate marketers, department store salespeople, and so on. A simpler strategy would be to have children at that age watch videos of the different professions, say a hundred professions in the course of their “work preparation year,” where each day they would see what a day in the life of real workers looked like.
But of course this can’t be permitted because we do not want our children to see too clearly what’s ahead of them.
It’s easy enough to see why the adults in charge, fulfilling their roles within society and operating from their particular belief systems and mythologies, would want to thwart any attempt to let children know what’s coming. No school superintendent would dare announce that seventh grade was now being turned over to reality. No mayor would dare propose that rich kids and poor kids alike should see what it’s like to be a stockbroker or a sanitation worker. What if some rich kid opted to become a social worker or a puppeteer? What if some poor kid set her sights on the boardroom? All hell would break loose!
Nor is it clear that existentially or emotionally children could tolerate that much reality. Don’t we need to invest some romanticism and wishful thinking into our prospective choices and make believe that becoming an archaeologist, firefighter, psychologist, travel guide, or biologist will be so fantastically cool and exciting? If we see what one of these folks actually does on an average day, the archaeologist fighting off malaria-bearing mosquitos, the travel guide repeating for the thousandth time the splendors of the Strasbourg Cathedral, the biologist locked into a lifetime examination of a worm that no longer interests her, what are we left with? We may well be left with only despair and no clue about what road to pursue.
I see this all the time. A typical creativity coaching client of mine, trying to find something to support her as she tries to create or perform, may pursue a dozen different trainings, training as a shaman, a massage therapist, an expressive arts therapist, a yoga teacher, a Reiki teacher, an energy healer, and so on, only to find that actually turning that training into a revenue stream is too hard or, maybe worse, that the work itself is not as interesting or rewarding as she had hoped it would be.
As we rethink what we ought to mean by the phrase “normal mental health” this is one of the things we must consider. If work constitutes a serious problem for so many people, as it does, it follows that it will be normal for many people to be persistently and chronically upset by their work and made unhappy by their work. Their difficulties both at work and with work are bound to negatively affect their mood and their emotional wellbeing. How can this not be the case?
Therefore we can now add a piece to the picture we are painting of “normal mental health.” It is altogether common, though completely unpleasant, to be making a living at work one dislikes. The pain and distress caused by that situation is likewise quite normal, as are all of the natural consequences of that unfortunate situation, among them stress and stress illnesses, anxiety, insomnia, sadness, apathy, anger, and so on. We should expect to see all that, not be surprised at it.
Likewise we should not treat the natural consequences of that unpleasant work, consequences like stress and sadness, as “symptoms to be treated,” as if they existed apart from an underlying cause. No pill will make rancid work smell good. Yet pills are what our providers of mental health services offer up.
We can also add a piece to the picture we are painting of “excellent mental health.” It is no ironclad law that you need to be doing work that you like in order to feel emotionally healthy but it certainly must matter to most folks most of the time. If you are a lawyer and you love the law that must be better for your mental health than if you are a lawyer and you hate the law. The former lawyer may be having a rollicking good time and in earthly heaven. The latter lawyer may be living in complete misery. How can there not be a relationship between palatable work and mental health?
Nor will it produce much emotional comfort to join some interesting profession and then not get to actually work in it. There is a vast difference between being a working actor and an out-of-work actor who is mostly a waiter. Since only a small percentage of actors can snare interesting acting work, even though they may be in a profession they love most are not deriving the emotional benefits of doing the work they love. Being a member of a profession you deem meaningful is not the same as, and not nearly as satisfying as, actually engaging in the work of that profession.
Because it is normal for work to prove a real problem, it is normal for people to feel chronically stressed and upset. The answer is not a pill. The answer is two-fold: as an individual, to do the best job you can at finding (or creating) work that suits you and that pays you; and as a society to help our children more clearly understand their prospective choices without, at the time, depressing them too much about what their future holds.
Hating work is a terrible emotional problem but not a mental disorder. If, as mental health providers, we simply package symptoms and purvey pills and never ask, “And by the way, do you happen to despise the 60 hours a week you spend at your day job?” we are acting negligently and inhumanly.
I wanted to let you know about an upcoming online class of mine that takes a first-ever look at the special challenges that smart people face. I think you’ll find it valuable and interesting!
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than 40 books including the forthcoming Making Your Creative Mark (New World Library, 2013) and Why Smart People Hurt (Conari Press, 2013). Widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach, Dr. Maisel founded natural psychology and leads workshops nationally and internationally. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://www.ericmaisel.com. You can learn more about natural psychology at http://www.naturalpsychology.net. Dr. Maisel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.