Another year has started…do you feel as if you are still stuck on a treadmill?
On the one hand, our life goals are pretty simple: to survive, get a decent job with some stability and security, develop loving relationships–even raise a family–pursue some enjoyable activities, and do it all with a certain amount of comfort and dignity.
On the other hand, to achieve these simple goals, we must subject ourselves to a range of social controls, such as work, which requires us to behave in certain ways and respond predictably to a prescribed system of rewards and punishments. For example, if we adhere to a lifetime of work, save money, follow the rules, then we will be rewarded with a pension and security in our old age.
But, at the same time, we are constantly harangued by advertisers to spend our earnings on products that will produce the most profits for merchants, not to mention the whole system of legal and illegal pleasures run by gamblers, drug dealers, and sex trade entrepreneurs.
The good and bad of social controls
Some social critics insist that this treadmill of modern life molds us into “helpless” consumers who are socialized to respond predictably to what feels good and what feels bad so that others can exploit our preferences for their own ends.
And, let’s face it, most of us find it is easy to accept this system of social controls—after all, what kind of world would it be without them?
Furthermore, staying on the treadmill has some advantages, otherwise we’d jump off in a flash. There is genuine pleasure in the competitive struggle for “success”—winning is fun! Without any viable alternatives, most of us resort to striving even harder to pursue the “good life” with more ‘goods’ like a bigger house, new car, more toys, more power on the job, a more glamorous lifestyle and so on. Happiness is about feeling good, and acquiring the tokens of success makes us feel good. But studies clearly show that such happiness is fleeting, temporary, shallow at best…so we respond by striving for even more!
And yet, while this striving helps us avoid the question, “Is that all there is?”, the consequences for doing so are proving to be increasingly negative for both individuals and societyl. For example, the city of Ottawa, where I live, is the capital of a G-8 country, and has the highest rate of per capital income in the nation, but it has also been diagnosed as the “depression capital of Canada,” by the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.
Disability claims for mental health by federal public servants spiked to an all-time high in the past 3 years (even though workers on the public payroll enjoy excellent wages and benefits and have little to worry about in terms of surviving). Depression and mental health issues are now the #1 workplace disability in North America costing our economy billions of dollars in lost productivity. In addition, there has been a dramatic increase in social pathologies over the last generation, including more organized crime, family breakdowns, ecological degradation, a widening gap between the rich and the rest, and so on.
What is the remedy?
How do we, as individuals, get off the treadmill, cast off these social controls that inhibit our freedom, and find meaning and purpose in life? These are big questions…but studies show that trying to answer them does, in itself, seem to help solve the problem.
While a happy and meaningful life overlap in certain ways, they are also very different. Money is clearly a factor in happiness because it can reduce stress and worry about surviving and enhances our opportunities for “feeling good.” We can more easily “take” from life what we need. If anything, pure happiness seems to be linked to not helping others in need, according to recent research.
What separates human beings from other species is not “feeling good” but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans. Psychologists have discovered what many world religions have taught for centuries—humans derive meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of their community. Any parent knows this because having children is associated with a meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but research shows that parents often exhibit low levels of happiness because having kids is worrisome and stressful!
Some studies indicate that another remedy to overcoming helplessness and meaningless-ness is to gain control over our consciousness or, more specifically, the content of our experience. Instead of submitting to the treadmill of social expectations and rewards, each of us can decide what is important to us and act accordingly. But, after decades of developing habits and desires that serve those social controls, it is not easy to (1) know what to do, or (2) actually do it.
You are not trapped in your job or career.
Having meaning and money are not mutually exclusive. You can learn how to combine the two, and you can take efficient and effective actions to do so. You can change your job or career. Research clearly shows that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction.
At JobJoy, we are committed to helping our clients connect their work to a clearly-defined purpose that harmonizes with what is meaningful for them, and still make money, as demonstrated in this free how-to webinar.
If you feel stuck on a treadmill, or suspect that your life is being controlled by external forces that don’t have your best interests at heart, then maybe this is the year that you determine to do something about it.
You can start, I suggest, by focusing (with our help if you like) on what really matters to you, by thinking about what you really want from life…then taking a few simple effective actions to move towards it. This gives you traction for a meaningful life.