On a personal level, understanding what psychological needs you meet through your work can help you make better decisions about what you do with your life. On a societal level, with automation eliminating or changing so many jobs, it's also important to understand how work and jobs psychologically benefit people.
A blindspot many people have is that they assume that what they want from work is the same as what everyone else wants. This can result in misunderstanding others, whether that's your romantic partner, your co-workers, or your employees. We all have our own individual priorities about what psychological needs work fulfills for us and what we want from a job.
As you read this article, identify any benefits of work you particularly relate to. If you want to, try rank-ordering the benefits, and if you have a partner, ask them to do the same. If you can't relate to an example, try identifying someone from your life for whom that benefit would be near the top of their list.
For this article, don't just skim my bolded bullet points, since the explanations are more psychologically sophisticated and nuanced than the overall themes.
1. Work can provide friendship.
Some folks have plenty of opportunities for friendship through their interests and hobbies or through groups of friends they've had for a long time. However, other folks particularly vibe with other people in their field of work (e.g., they share a thinking style or worldview), or they're not great at making friends outside of work.
For people who are socially anxious, socially lazy, or who are too busy for many hobbies, work can provide built-in friendships. People who are obsessed with their work (for whatever reason) also sometimes feel like they don't have much in common with people outside their field. Your work colleagues might feel like your tribe in a way most other people don't.
2. Work can provide a sense of stability when life is rocky.
If your work is stable, and you're good at it, it can help you stay even-keeled when other things in your life are stressful (e.g., you're caring for a sick relative, going through infertility, or recovering from a breakup). Sometimes people don't fully appreciate this benefit until they hit a rocky point in life.
If you're prone to depression, work can give you an opportunity just to execute something you're good at, which can help bolster and stabilize your mood (here is an interesting podcast episode about this).
3. Work can provide an intellectual challenge.
If an intellectual challenge is the main thing you get out of your work, you might think it's the main thing everyone else wants, too, but that's not actually the case. People who love taking on new challenges and who get bored easily often have a hard time understanding others who aren't wired this way. For people who love conquering novel challenges, work that is cognitively demanding and isn't monotonous is very important.
If your identity and self-worth only revolve around your work, that can be a problem. In this scenario, when work is going well, you'll feel good, but if your work collapses, so will you. A more balanced manifestation of this is when what you do as a job/career, or the specific projects you work on, feels self-expressive.
5. Work can simply provide the funds for you to do the activities you enjoy.
We've all heard the distinction "live to work" versus "work to live." Some folks enjoy showing up to work, doing their job, and then spending the rest of their time on the activities they enjoy. They prefer to rely on their outside interests for fulfilling their psychological needs and easily do so. They don't require their work to provide a sense of identity, challenge, etc.
These might be folks who surf or bike ride before and after work each day, spend all evening in their gardens or workshops, or see friends multiple times a week. Their work provides the funds to facilitate that.
They don't need more than that from work, nor do they want work-related stress that carries over to their personal time. (For people who love challenge from work, they might see their relaxation time as important for helping their work performance, rather than inherently valuable in itself).
6. Work can help you understand the world, other people, and yourself.
Work sometimes puts us in contact with people and situations that we wouldn't otherwise experience, and this can help us learn about the world and even ourselves. For example, one of my favorite aspects of my work as a writer is answering journalists' questions.
Until I started doing this, I didn't know that I actually enjoy being "put on the spot" in interviews. As a naturally anxious person, I wouldn't have expected myself to enjoy this, but I do. I get a creative rush from it.
Also, through work, we come in contact with folks who have all sorts of thinking styles and behavioral approaches to getting things done that are different from our own, and these can be learning experiences that help us in our personal lives as well as in our jobs. Exposure to other people's ways of doing things and thinking styles can help us develop our skills and expand our horizons.
7. Work can allow you to contribute to the public good.
Most of us want to do meaningful work, but what makes work meaningful can either be about the personal benefits it provides, or it can be about doing good in the world more broadly. Like people who desire intellectual challenge from work, people for whom doing good and remaking the world is a major motivation to show up to their job often find it hard to understand others for whom that isn't a driving force. Folks may still be motivated to do good in the world, but they might not necessarily link that to their job.
Why Does All This Matter?
- When people retire, change careers, become stay-at-home parents, or their job gets automated away, then these benefits of work need to get replaced, and that requires some hard thinking on a personal and social level.
- When you're thinking about your career and project decisions, there might be specific benefits of work that you're seeking. For instance, I am mostly interested in projects that enable me to work with other smart people (especially those who think a bit differently than I naturally do), and projects that give me a reason or an excuse to putter on new skills. Whatever is important for you, you need to own that. You don't need to be swayed in your life decisions by comparing yourself to other people who have different priorities.
- The benefits you seek from work will, to some extent, evolve when you're in different life stages. Try to be self-aware about this. For instance, let's say you become a parent. You might find that intellectually challenging work becomes less of a priority. Or, it might become more of a priority if you need the challenge to balance the repetitiveness of parenting behaviors. Having the next generation in front of you can also make you more focused on doing good in the world or doing big things, since the time you spend away from your child needs to be worth it. When you're self-aware about how your work "wants" and "needs" are shifting, you can make career/job/project decisions that support that.
- Understand that other people are different from you, and that's OK and valid. Seeing this can be helpful for understanding those close to you (e.g., your spouse). Understanding different motivations can help you understand why others behave the way they do and how to influence and motivate other people when necessary (including employees and coworkers).
- On a career-planning level, think about your long-term plan and how you can maximize what's most important to you.
- Bonus tip: Look for any aspects of work that you dismiss or devalue. There might be benefits you underestimate or take for granted. If you don't fully appreciate these, their importance can come as a surprise if you make life decisions that result in losing those benefits. When you undervalue something, it's potentially an opportunity to pick up easy wins. For instance, if currently you only get a benefit at a 1 out of 10 levels, because you've paid no attention to that potential benefit, then moving to a 2 out of 10 doubles that.