The Joy of Work

Mason New
3 min readFeb 9, 2015

The question shot out of the dark. My daughter and I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood after dinner. I asked her what I should write about for this blog entry, and she replied, “What does it mean to be ‘joyful’?” BAM! Take that, Dad.

I’ve read quite a bit of philosophy over the years, and one perplexing question keeps cropping up in my brain: How are we supposed to see the world? Each philosopher has a different answer, of course. We should seek pleasure or abandon it. We should seek understanding, or balance, or peace. We should discard our possessions. We should seek the divine. We should go it alone. We should join others.

So, when my daughter asked this question, I had no way to answer it. In the daily grind of work and duty and responsibility, how can we find joy? Is it the opposite of drudgery?

Last week, I arose early to see a thin layer of snow covering our yard. I dismayed at the thought school would be closed- the kids would be bouncing around the house and all my day’s productivity would vanish in one interruption after another. I could disappear into my office and grumble when they knocked, but that didn’t seem a good way to spend my day. I could tell them to fend for themselves, or watch a movie, or play a video game, but I also knew that wouldn’t be good, either. I huffed downstairs to make the coffee.

Then, my children awoke. Screams of delight erupted as they peered through the windows, all because the snow had come. Within moments, they were putting on snow suits and boots. School cancelled, they ran outside.

I felt their joy. As I watched, I recalled those snow days so long ago, those days when schoolwork did not concern me. I threw snowballs, sculpted snowmen, and was just plain cold. I came inside to warm up, hair askew, socks and gloves wet, only to wait long enough to go back out. However, the joy I felt watching them wasn’t just in recalling my old memories. I was also seeing them form their own, memories that perhaps they will remember years from now when the demands of job and family fill their minds.

But, joy cannot just be a release from work. It can’t be simply a closed school or the beginning of a vacation. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor now at NYU, discusses what several scientists have termed “flow,” when the challenge of a task intersects with our abilities (p. 95). Several studies indicate that reaching this state of mind provides tremendous happiness. In short, joy comes from the right kind of work.

It seems impossible. We all have careers, financial needs, responsibilities, and desires. Maybe we find an occupation worthy of our abilities, but in reality, most people just pour themselves into hobbies or other distractions to combat the ennui of their jobs. Or, they just change, repeatedly. Or they just lament the life they should have.

In my memory, I see my children playing in the snow, and I realize it was not the absence of school work that filled them with joy. Instead, they were engaged in a moment of meaningful work, building a snowman in the cold with each other — children building and creating suited to their abilities. They had reached that moment of flow.

I suppose it may be easier for a child to feel joyful, but I don’t really believe it. My children saw the snow and went out to experience it. I changed from disgruntled father to someone who understood, at least for a brief moment, that joy is not a permanent state. We must sometimes endure the drudgery to find work that matters.

So, despite today’s meetings, paperwork, reports to analyze, and bills to pay, I can at least attempt an answer to my daughter’s difficult question: joy means building our snowmen.

Text:

Haidt, Jonathan, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Photo: author’s own.

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Mason New

Writer, teacher, business owner, US Marine Corps veteran, podcaster. Thrilled to get to know you. www.igotoneforya.com