Why Do We Work, and Why Should We?

Jim Mason
6 min readAug 15, 2020
Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Human work involves physical actions and/or mental decisions. It is normally performed to solve problems — situations in our lives that require periodic attention or that threaten us in some way — or to create new ideas or things that are useful to us or to other people.

Positive rewards for work can be intrinsic — the pleasure or other satisfactions in performing the work — and/or extrinsic — responses from the environment, which includes other people, that benefit the worker physically, financially, and/or psychologically.

Negative rewards (costs) for work can be physical, financial, or psychological, too. They can include outright failure to perform the attempted work, or physical or mental fatigue, stress, or depression, or costs in money or other expenditures such as wear and tear of our possessions. To counteract the effects of negative rewards, people often resort to short-term positive rewards from eating or drinking, including possibly taking addictive psychoactive substances, or other activities that are positively rewarding in the short term, including some activities, such as gambling, that can become harmful if repeated.

Much strictly physical work these days — moving things, combining things, or taking things apart — can be done by machines. Such work is intrinsically rewarding only to the extent that it feels good and is healthy to exercise one’s strength, speed, or dexterity, or if it is combined with intrinsically rewarding mental work, or else if it enables one to enter a restful mental state. Otherwise, strictly physical work that is unhealthy needs to be rewarded extrinsically unless the worker can be forced by imprisonment or slavery to perform the work against his or her mental choice.

The decisions involved in mental work can range from simple and repetitive to difficult and challenging. Intrinsic rewards for mental work can include satisfactions of frequently solving sub-problems of an overall problem (like successfully placing pieces in a jigsaw puzzle), or solving an overall problem (finishing the puzzle), or creating a new interesting or useful idea thing or idea. Even simple, repetitive mental work can sometimes induce pleasurable, meditative psychological states; otherwise it becomes boring. Work that requires solving non-trivial but intrinsically unrewarding…

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Jim Mason

I study language, cognition, and humans as social animals. You can support me by joining Medium at https://jmason37-80878.medium.com/membership