Work and Well-Being

by Jeremy McCarthy

With our ever-accelerating journey toward the singularity, are we losing a meaningful part of what it means to be human?

I like work. I always have. Not just my work (which I also love) but work in general. For example, I’d rather wash dishes by hand than use the dishwasher, I’m perfectly happy to carry my own luggage to my room and I miss having a stick shift in my car. I’d rather take the stairs than the escalator. And, if I am on an escalator, I’d rather walk than stand like a lemming on a conveyor belt.

I realize I am in the minority on this. In fact, some locations are now banning walking on escalators because not enough people do it for them to warrant taking up a whole “lane” on the left side. Forging ahead on the escalator, if not outlawed, is increasingly seen as rude. The sedentary majority wins. I am forced to join the lemmings.

I’m not sure why I have a resistance to taking the easy route. It may be because my studies in psychology have shown me the value of work to mental well-being. For example, psychologist Mihaly (“Mike”) Csikszentmihalyi found that people are happier and more engaged when they are using their skills and confronting challenges. Surprisingly, people experience more positive emotions at work than they do in their free time. But most of us are poor predictors of what will make us happy. We think we want a life of leisure, but those who achieve that find themselves listless and bored. Believe it or not, life is better when busy.

The problem for work-lovers like me is that in the modern world, there is less work to be had. Technology has come along to make life easier, automating more tasks and shuttling us around from place to place with ease. Today, we can program robots to vacuum our floors, we can send a letter without walking to our mailbox and we can brush our teeth without having to exert ourselves by maneuvering the toothbrush in a circular (or is it up-and-down?) fashion. And more automation is coming every day with driverless cars, suitcases that roll themselves and supermarkets that deliver groceries to your door.

One wonders what lies at the end of this rainbow. When everything is automated, will we have more time to go to the gym and exercise all of the physiological systems that we used to use in our daily lives? Or will we decide that our bodies are of no more use, just another appliance that can be replaced by automation? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know that making life easier comes at a cost. The more work we do, the more capable we are of doing it—and that seems like a good thing.

It is very possible that I am wrong about this one. I sound like my grand-father, who refused to trade in his perfectly good manual typewriter for an electric one. I realize there is some inevitability here. The technology is coming whether we like it or not. It will not bode well for those who try to resist.

But I think we should, at a minimum, find brief moments to reflect on our ever-accelerating journey toward the singularity and notice the sacrifices being made along the way. When I was a child, my grandmother’s kitchen had a framed needlepoint on the wall that said, “Ask Grandma.” Today, we ask Google—and Grandma is out of a job. Is our life truly better because we can cook dinner in less than five minutes? Or did we lose a meaningful part of what it means to be human? And what do we do with all of the time that technology saves us? It seems we just give it back to technology. We have created the robots, and now they must be fed.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I love technology, I really do. I just think these are questions that need to be asked. And before we rush to invent the next gadget to make our lives easier, maybe we should just try to appreciate the work.

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