Day 16: Reckoning With The Distress of Meaningless Work

Day 16 of 30 days to better mental health

Posted Jan 18, 2015

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Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here:

You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!

Today we look at the following.

Most work is absurd and absurdly taxing. The idea that we must spend half of our waking hours toiling at something just to pay the rent is horrible on the face of it. Yet people are somehow surprised that their work causes them distress.

They feel like a bad sport for pointing a finger at the absurdity of work. Presumably machines have no opinions about work; but why shouldn’t a creature with consciousness, one that can imagine its life purposes and experience the difference between a meaningful time and a meaningless time, hate being subjected to all that meaningless toiling?

What could be more natural than finding meaningless work distressing? Imagine decade after decade of it! Yet every child is primed to picture some wonderful work that is supposed to occupy him for a lifetime. Children are not instructed that work will come in two flavors, meaningful work and meaningless work, and that most work will amount to the latter.

Society needs the vast majority of its workforce to engage in unrewarding jobs and that those jobs may prove unrewarding and create chronic distress is never mentioned. No one dares point in finger or even has the inclination to bother, in large part because there are no alternatives and no remedies. It isn’t that twelve people sitting around a table at universal headquarters collude to agree that drones are needed for the system to operate, no matter how that affects their mental health. There is no conspiracy of that sort.

Rather it is in the nature of our species, and another proof of our evolutionary roots, that work is not questioned, that neither bosses, who need employees, nor employees, who need jobs, are inclined to point a finger at the indignity that is meaningless work. So the game is played generation after generation as workers despair—and suffer the added indignity of feeling prohibited from denouncing the very idea of work.

Mental health professionals play along too and say nothing. Only a blind or a cynical mental health professional would dare argue that spending a lifetime engaged in meaningless work for the sake of paying the rent wouldn’t sadden, stress, and even ruin a human being. The waste that is so much of work of course makes people sad. How can this truth not count as we think about our mental health?

When the basic mechanics of survival tax us, how can they not be factored in? All a mental health professional need ask is, “How’s work going?” If the person across from her says, “Great!” and means it, the mental health professional can sigh a huge sigh of relief. But if he says, “Oh, you know, it’s just a paycheck,” then the extravagant distress caused by being forced to earn a living doing meaningless work must be put on the table.

What follows on the heels of all of this distress are predictable efforts at soothing ourselves and reducing the pain. Billions drink and use drugs. Billions join religions where soothing promises are made. Billions amuse themselves, invest time and energy in their teams, buy shoes, search out pornography, read romances, eat around the clock, create dramas, or rail at their children. To reel from distress and rabidly root for your team or read two romances a day are not diseases. It is what we do to reduce our experience of distress.

There can be no short answer and hardly any satisfactory answer to the question, “How can I avoid meaningless work and still pay my bills?” If you are one of the lucky ones and have landed upon meaningful work that also pays the bills, celebrate your good luck. If you are one of the many who must toil away, then you may want to do the work suggested in previous posts on tolerating a difficult thought (“I may need to change my whole line of work”), making a change sooner rather than later, etc.

Today, simply ask yourself the following question and tolerate the anxiety that asking it may provoke. The question is: “Am I okay with the work I do to pay the bills or must I make a huge change there?” If you are deeply not okay with the work you do to pay the bills that will severely affect your mental health. In that case, look the matter straight in the eye and begin that difficult reckoning.

To summarize:

Today’s goal: Looking your current work in the eye to see if it is tolerable

Today’s key principle: Spending 50 hours a week at meaningless work is bound to negatively affect your mental health. That truth must be factored into your plan for improving your mental health.

Today’s key strategy: Ask yourself the question, “Am I okay with the work I do to pay the bills or must I make a huge change there?”

Good luck today!


Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at Contact Dr. Maisel at And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: