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A Psychology of Work

The Paradox of Work

Work is the source of anxiety, pain, exhaustion, and stress – yet without work, we would lose our sanity and ability to sustain ourselves. One imagines that the avoidance of work is how you manage stress, but it is the avoidance of work that cultivates stress.

It is only when you stress your mind that you can solve problems more efficiently in the future (thereby reducing future stress). It is only when you challenge yourself physically that your body improves itself (the importance of training).

One of the best and purest joys is having a rest after labor. —Immanuel Kant

Despite the importance of work, and how much time it takes up, not many people are engaged with what they do. In the world’s most advanced economy, the U.S, (as of 2018), almost 66 percent of employees were either not engaged with work or actively disengaged with work (those who have miserable work experiences). The findings are based on a Gallop poll of over 30,000 full and part-time U.S employees.

Psychological Force and Tension

Pierre Janet was a French psychologist who defined psychic energy by force and tension – psychiatrists have often used metaphors from the hard sciences. Janet categorized people into three types.

Some people, according to Janet were described as having a low degree of psychological force. These people know that they tire easily, so they avoid efforts, initiative, and social relationships. They are often considered selfish or dull. They restrict their desires to the point of leading an aesthetic life (neurotic asceticism).

There are also social asthenias, who suffer from feeling empty. They do not like people or feel liked by others. They feel isolated. Often, they seek out a person they can submit to, so that they can avoid effort. Many alcoholics fit into this category. The third group are patients who have such severe asthenia that they cannot maintain a job.

Often, the occupation itself exacerbates the situation. Dr. Leonhard Schwartz stipulated that many neurotics can be helped by simply changing their occupation, or the timing and duration of their work. Their relationship with others is also important.

Janet’s theory of mental energy also applies to normal individuals. He sometimes mentions the psychological millionaires, who are endowed with a great amount of psychological force combined with a high level of psychological tension. These people can perform many highly synthesized acts. A good example is Napoleon, when he had to combine significant data about the strength and movements of the enemy and had to make quick decisions based on his guesswork over a long time.

There is also the type of individual who has low psychological tension but sufficient psychological force. This person usually has obsessions and phobias. Their need of stimulation may cause these individuals to find artificial ways of raising their psychological tension. This is how alcoholism, sexual perversion, drug addiction and other forms of criminality manifest.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece. – Proverbs 16:27-29

An act that is successfully completed heightens psychological tension in an individual, while an incomplete act lowers it. Janet likens this to financial investment, where several good investments bring benefits, and a series of bad investments bring ruin. This is what spontaneously happens with many people.

There are two extreme cases. One, the person who has an uninterrupted succession of well-completed acts, becomes able to increase his psychological tension. Think of the shy people who make efforts to learn social actions that help them overcome their shyness and enjoy social triumphs.

The opposite case is that of the individual who leaves his actions incomplete, and unachieved. This person lowers his psychological tension, leaving him less capable of adjusting.

Work Therapy

Work therapy is a solution. Nervous individuals would be advised to keep busy and take up as many occupations and hobbies as possible – as advocated by Hermann Simon.

A second solution would consist of training, giving the patient an intellectual or manual task that requires him to work at a relatively high level of his ability, teaching him to do it slowly and perfectly, before gradually rising up the level. This was the principle of classical education and professional schools.

The most outstanding gifts can be destroyed by idleness. —Michel de Montaigne

The Avoidance of Work

Janet was one of the first to categorize people into different types, but he was far from the last. Freud, Jung, and Adler would all go on to create their own ways of categorizing people, but it was Adler who was most concerned with the present, with the individual’s fulfilment of his life’s tasks, regardless of the events of his past.

Take for instance one of the categorizations that Adler discusses in his book, Understanding Human Nature – the aggressive and defensive types. The aggressive type moves violently and when they are brave, their courage becomes foolish to prove to the world how brave they are. But they betray their deep feeling of insecurity in this way.

If they are anxious, they try to harden themselves against fear. They play the tough role to a ludicrous extent.

Others do what they can to suppress all feelings of tenderness and gentleness because they are afraid of being perceived as weak. Society does not reward these people. Life becomes a series of endless battles for them. They are easily frightened and do not have the stamina for lengthy conflict.

The other type is the defender, these people feel threatened and are constantly on guard. They compensate for insecurity, not by aggression, but by anxiety, caution, and cowardice. These people were aggressive at an earlier point in their lives. Sometimes, they succeed by disguising their retreat as a source for an imminent piece of work that will be useful.

But these fantasies are a way of avoiding reality. Some, who have not completely lost initiative, may accomplish something of value to society.

Artists belong to this category. They withdraw from reality and build a fantasy world where only their ideals exist. But they are the exceptions to the rule, for these types of individuals usually suffer many defeats and capitulate to hardship. They are afraid of everything and expect nothing but hostility from the world.

Eventually, they lose all belief in the goodness of humanity, and the brighter side of life. One constant of these types is their critical attitude. They are great at recognizing the slightest defect in others and set themselves up as judges of humanity without accomplishing anything themselves. They cannot enjoy the victories of others, but only seek to sabotage them.

There are many ways of categorizing people, to help us understand human psychology. We can even divide them into ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers.’ Thinkers meditate and reflect; they live in a fantasy world and shun the real world. They are difficult to jolt into action. Doers are the opposite, they don’t meditate or reflect, they are busy with an active, down-to-earth approach to life’s problems.

Beyond the Old School of Psychology

So far, we have seen ways in which Janet and Adler have described the individual that has chosen to avoid their responsibilities as a member of society. But subscribing to the old schools of psychology limits our understanding of what we can do next. If we were content to simply categorize people as this or that, then there could be no progress. People who are functional in society have a more developed instinct to work, while those who are maladjusted have a more developed instinct towards fantasy.

This method of categorizing people in this way is vulnerable to Foucault’s criticism of the psychiatric industry altogether, as simply a means of those in power to subvert the will of individuals who refuse to conform to the established social order by locking them up in some confined space away from everyone else.

This is why if we wanted to glean anything useful from the work of these psychiatrists, we need to look beyond superficial labelling, and think more clearly about the nature of work, and whether the problem is not simply that the individual is mentally ill, but that they are engaged with the wrong type of work. That is, it is not only that the type of occupation is something that exacerbates the problem, as Schwartz suggested, but that type of work is the problem.  

There seems to be two extremes that people fall between. They are either too lax or too stringent on themselves. They are either too much in order or too much in chaos. It is again the middle line that must be traversed, and that calls for a negotiation with the self. 

You cannot be a tyrant to yourself. If you are, then you will find yourself rebelling. You must allow the weaker aspects of your nature to be given expression. You must make way for indulgences, but at the same time, you must set rules and stick to them.

To negotiate, you need to be honest with yourself. You must admit to the things that are standing in your way, you must admit to your overindulgences, and at the same time you must account for the fact that you are human, that you will need to indulge every now and then, that you will need to relax.

In the same way, society can be a tyrant to you. And naturally, you will rebel against it. Thus, you must learn how to negotiate with both yourself and with society. If you succeed, then you will have overcome the dangers of addiction, the repercussions of laxity, and the unforeseen consequences of tyranny, which include a joyless, monotonous, meaningless life, as well as the inevitable rebellion from within that will collapse whatever it is that you have been working for.

Human beings, Adler tells us, can only be understood through their goals, and if we perceive people in this way, we can see how often self-victimization, excessive greed, laziness, and fearfulness are ways of avoiding happiness, of clinging to what is familiar and known. We assume that people want what is best for them, but it is often the case that they want what is most familiar and controllable, even if it was not good for them at all.

Adler defined three life tasks: work, friendship, and love. Some people decide to avoid life’s tasks, they become recluse, do not work or contribute to society, they don’t try to maintain friendships, and do not seek love. But these life tasks are essential for psychological well-being. All of these relate to people, in one way or another. Indeed, Adler believed that all problems were interpersonal problems.

Ultimately, community is the purpose of life. You cannot do anything worthwhile without providing value to your community. But Adler defined community very broadly. He did not include family and close friends, but all living things – past and future. If you contribute, even if you feel like you are contributing psychologically, then you will be happy. It is why wealthy people often do charity work; it is to feel they deserve to exist.

The Courage be Disliked 

Kant had a concept he called “inclination” that describes the instinct of craving social acceptance.

Picture a stone rolling down a hill, because of gravity, the stone will continue its course, it becomes smaller and smoother and then hits a flat surface.

In the same way, the will to appease others, to belong, to feel popular and liked is akin to a stone falling down the mountain. Of course, no individual is immune to this feeling, but if you are not careful and more self-aware, you become like a stone, you become diminished and smooth. The ideal is not to live to make life people happy because that is impossible to achieve. But rather, to do what you believe is right.

Many young people feel guilty if they disobey their parents, they feel that by doing what they want, they are acting selfish, particularly if their parents expressed outright indignation towards them. But it is not the young person who is being selfish, but their parents. The parents want to force their child to conform to their own vision of reality and do not want to consider what their child wants.

That is selfish. It is the responsibility of the parents to come to terms with their feelings, it is not the child’s responsibility. 

Whether it is the pursuit of something meaningful, or the engagement with behaviors that put your mind in a flow state, you must choose to work at something that goes beyond artificial categories, and social limitations. You must find something that works for you, and must be stubborn enough to pursue it, yet supple enough to change course if things do not work out.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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