The spirit of work

Psychoanalytic theory presupposes that a persons choice of career is lodged in conscious and, most importantly, unconscious processes, and this is one of the reasons that choosing an apt career and flourishing in it is so challenging. As Freud noted, “A man like me cannot live without a hobby-horse, without a consuming passion, without—in Schillers words—a tyrant. 1 have found one [‘working well, writing well’]. In its service I know no limits” (1895 [1985], p. 129). Sounding similar to Freud who advocated choosing a career by listening to “the deep inner needs of our nature,” the unconscious (Reik, 1983, p. 7), the great thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi, put it just right, “Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart. Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love” (https://, retrieved 10/29/19).

While Freud told Erik Erickson that “to love and work” were the central therapeutic goals of psychoanalysis, these being the twin pillars of a sound mind and for living the flourishing life (Erikson, 1959, p. 96), the fact is that in contemporary Western society, in say the last 25 years, many people have not experienced their work as particularly satisfying, let alone inspiring. From my experience as a psychoanalyst, analysands currently spend as much time speaking about their problems at work as they do about problems in their love relationships (and sometimes more). However, depending on which survey one peruses, a most recent one suggests that in the Trump era, job satisfaction has significantly increased (at least before the Covid-19 pandemic and upsurge of unemployment, and racial unrest). According to the highly respected nonpartisan, non-profit think tank, The Conference Board, “Job Satisfaction in 2019,” about 54 percent of American workers are satisfied with their employment (up three points from 2018, indicating one of the largest single-year increases in the survey’s long history). Workers also report being considerably more relaxed about their job security. And millennials have reported an upsurge in confidence in relation to their wages. However, workers are most troubled by their current jobs potential for future growth, with this being the most important indicator of job satisfaction. Moreover, over 60 percent reported feeling dissatisfied with their organizations recognition practices, performance evaluation process, and communication channels. Also, worth noting is that men generally feel better than women about manifold financial aspects of their work, such as wages and bonus plans ( > press > pressdetail; retrieved 11/7/19).

Notwithstanding these encouraging statistics, this chapter is concerned with what psychological and contextual factors foster a person’s love of their work as opposed to suffering through it. This is the problem of job satisfaction, as it is called in the psychology of work literature, a subject that should be of great concern to analysands (and their analysts), who are struggling to fashion a flourishing life, in part because of the massive amount of time the average person spends working during a typical week (Marcus, 2017). For example, a 2014 national Gallup poll put the average number of work hours at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many respondents saying they work 50 hours per week. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the average 25—54-year-old (probably the bulk of analysands, patients, and clients) worked 40.5 hours a week. Indeed, the art of living a flourishing life requires the will and ability to navigate the workplace in a creative, skillful, and productive manner, and analysts can help potentiate this process ( > 2017/05/03 > how-the-8-hour-workday-changed-h... retrieved 12/7/19).

While I will be summarizing some of the pertinent vocational and organizational research on job satisfaction, my main focus will be on what kind of “technology of the self” (“self-steering mechanisms” as Foucault called it (Rose, 1996, p. 29)) a person can implement that will likely help him to experience his everyday work as spiritually uplifting in the Buberian/Marcelian sense.That is, as “communion”—“being opened up and drawn in” (Buber, 1965, p. 91) or “opening-up and entering-in” (“availability” and “engagement” in Marcel’s language) (Cain, 1963, p. 70)—that points to “something more,” “something higher,” and “something better” (i.e., it addresses the Eternal/Absolute Thou, the divine, or the transcendent). I will begin this discussion with Marcel’s contribution on work as the created birthplace of the transcendent, followed by Buber’s reflections on a specific type of work, what constitutes education, in particular, great teaching. “Education worthy of the name is essentially education of character,” of the moral education of the “whole being of his pupil,” said Buber (1965,pp. 104,105),and this also is the main thrust of psychoanalysis at its best, at least as I conceive it.1 I will conclude the chapter with some reflections on what Buberian/Marcelian spirituality can offer the analysand (and analyst) attempting to fashion a flourishing work life that goes beyond mere functionality, competence, even excellence, that has been aptly summarized in the many professional and lay publications on job satisfaction.