Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): On the Role of Work


Maggie:  Do you think work is important to living a happy life?

John:  Good question.  But before I answer it I think we need to clarify what you mean by the word “work.”

Maggie:  I mean something like having a job.  The thing most of us have to do to make money, like being a lawyer or a cook at Burger King.

John:  That is what I thought you meant.  Let me address that question, but within the context of a broader question: Is being productive important to living a happy life?

Maggie:  Okay.  But why do you want to use “being productive” rather than “work”?  Can you explain that to me?

John:  Work is a limiting word, depending on how we define it.  It can mean a job, like you referenced.  But it can also mean volunteer work or housework or the work involved in raising a child or schoolwork or any other number of things.  What all these definitions have in common, however, is productivity.  In each instance, the person is being productive.  So I would rather use the word productive, because it encompasses all the different kinds of work that we can do, whether or not we are actually being paid for that work.

Maggie:  I get it.  We use productivity so that we can include stay-at-home parents, high school and college students, and kids doing chores in our discussion.

John: Right.  And we don’t want to limit the discussion to jobs because some people have really good jobs and others have jobs that they greatly dislike with coworkers they greatly dislike.  So the discussion gets derailed pretty quickly if we just focus on jobs.

Maggie:  That makes sense.

John:  Now that we have that clear, we need to roughly define human beings.  It doesn’t have to be exact, but just good enough for our discussion here.

Maggie:  I have no idea what that means.

John:  Let me help.  Do you think human beings are more content when they are doing something or when they are sitting around watching TV?  We can ask this question a bit more philosophically: Are human beings designed to be active or inactive? 

Maggie:  It depends on the day.  On Sundays I like to sit around and do nothing.

John:  I know you are trying to be clever, but that is actually quite a perceptive answer.  Now answer this question: Why do you like to sit around on Sundays?

Maggie:  Because I am tired from working all week, so I like to rest on Sundays.

John:  So you rest on Sundays to recharge for work the following week?

Maggie:  Yes, that’s right.

John:  Would you want to sit around and do nothing all the time?

Maggie:  No, that sounds boring and horrible.  I like to do stuff.

John:  So you like to be productive?

Maggie:  I see what you did there.  Okay, yes, I like to be productive.  I like doing things. I don’t like all my classes, but I like going to school because it keeps me busy, some of the classes are really interesting, and I like the feeling that comes with getting stuff done in my classes.  And I rest on Sundays to help me recharge so I can do things during the week. 

John:  What if you didn’t go to school or have a job, what would you do?

Maggie:  I would still get out of the house and find something to do.  I would read or go hiking or volunteer to help somewhere.

John:  Based on what you just said, do you think people are happy just resting all the time?

Maggie:  No, I think people like to do things. They like to work.

John:  And they rest or recreate to help them work more, to be more productive?

Maggie:  Yes, that seems right to me.

John:  So people are basically productive beings? They like to be productive, to work, and to keep busy?

Maggie:  I agree with that.

John:  So do I.  Based on our discussion, I think we can generally define human beings as productive beings.  We are designed to keep busy, to produce things, to create, and to work. What do you think of our definition?

Maggie:  I agree with that, as long as we define being productive broadly, like you did.  I don’t want to rule out people like Alex Honnold who rock climb for a job. I think he is being productive also.

John:  Yes, he is very productive.  And I also think we can include things like writing, painting, reading, building boats, helping people with homework, and fixing lawnmowers as part of being productive.

Maggie:  Yes, that was my point and I agree.  So then, it looks like we are saying that because we are designed to be productive, we need to be productive to be happy?

John:  Yes, that is right. We can’t just sit around and do nothing.  That is not in our nature.  We need to work or otherwise be productive in some capacity to be happy.

Maggie:  I think I agree with that.  But how hard do we have to work?  Are you saying that we have to work all the time to be happy?

John:  Not at all.  I think we need to recreate in order to recharge; otherwise we risk burnout. 

But let’s be clear about this: we don’t work in order to recreate.  That is a fallacy propagated by the entertainment and leisure industries.  The opposite is actually true: we recreate so that we can continue to be productive.  Recreation is just a tool (not an end-in-itself) that helps us fulfill our productive nature.

Maggie:  Okay, I get that.  But you still didn’t answer my question.  How hard do we have to work to be productive?

John:  I don’t think we can set hard and fast rules about this.  It is going to differ from person to person, country to country, and culture to culture. But, and this is only an opinion, I think the happiest people are the people who live a strenuous life. 

Maggie:  What do you mean by a strenuous life?

John:  To best understand this idea, let’s examine the other side first, the un-strenuous life. 

There are some people who only want a life of slothful ease.  They want to sit by a pool or watch television or play games or wander around stores.  They do as little work as possible in order to just get by.  They don’t do anything productive because they lack both the desire to be productive and the drive to do great things. They rarely complete things they start and they waste the little time they have on this earth.

Maggie: “Slothful.”  Really?  Where did you get that?

John:  You know, it means lazy, idle, sluggish, inactive. It’s a cool word: slothful. And I got it from one of Teddy Roosevelt’s speeches.  But it is still a cool word.  

Maggie:  No. Seriously. It’s not.  But I had this idea as you were talking.  It seems like people who live this life of  “slothful” ease are more likely to be involved in drugs or excessive drinking or over-eating or other unhealthy behavior.

John:  Possibly.  But why do you think this is the case?

Maggie:  To deal with the boredom that arises from such a lifestyle.

John:  I think that is right.

Maggie:  Okay, I get the idea.  But what about a strenuous life?

John:  First, we need to understand and accept that a strenuous life includes work.  Hard work.  And we should embrace that.  But it is not just about working long hours.  A person living a strenuous life puts in the right amount of effort and the right amount of hours.  For example, if I am being paid for eight hours of work, then I should put in at least eight hours of effort and labor.  If I goof around for an hour during those eight hours, I should make up that time by staying late or working on weekends. 

Maggie:  So living a strenuous life means having integrity in your work?

John:  You are so smart.  I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, it means we need to work hard and have integrity in that work.

Second, living a strenuous life means that we do not shrink from difficult or dangerous tasks, even those that present hardships and are a tough grind.  If there is a task to do, we do it regardless of the challenges it presents.  We push ourselves to meet those challenges head on and strive to overcome any difficulties that stand in the way of us completing such tasks.

Maggie:  Are there any virtues that help us do this?

John:  Another very good question.  The virtues are a sense of adventure and resilience. The sense of adventure helps us not shrink from new challenges and resilience helps us stick to those challenges until they are complete. 

Maggie:  Do you think living such a life requires sacrifice?

John:  Yes, very much so.  Let’s make that the third point.  Living a strenuous life requires us to take care of those who depend upon us for their care, even if we have to sacrifice to do so.  If this means working longer hours to take care of someone financially, then we do it.  If it means getting a second job, then we do it.  If it means mowing our neighbor’s yard, we do it. We do what we have to do to meet our responsibilities.  But this is easier to do if we are loyal and dependable, two virtues that we can work on developing.

Maggie:  You stole my idea.  I was going to say that sacrifice requires loyalty.

John:  I will give you credit for the idea.

Maggie:  What’s next?

John:  We have touched on this briefly above, but living a strenuous life requires an adventurous spirit.  We have to dare to take on all things, great and small.  It is much better to take risks than to live a shallow, complacent life.  It is better to achieve glorious results and endure spectacular failures than it is to “take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Maggie:  Walt Whitman?

John:  No.  Theodore Roosevelt.

Maggie:  Now he was a great adventurer!

John:  Yes he was.  And he understood our last point very well: a strenuous life requires us to work to care for more than just ourselves and our immediate families.  We need to work to take care of the people in our communities also.  Whether this is helping our elderly neighbors, feeding the hungry, working in our churches, helping pick up trash on the side of the road, volunteering on community committees, or reading to special needs kiddos, we need to do something to help others.  We shouldn’t shy away from such challenges or ignore them, because we all live in various communities for which we are responsible.

Maggie:  I like that.  We are community beings.

John:  So…  That is the strenuous life.  It is a life of productivity that is exemplified by a commitment to our families and a commitment to our communities.  It is a life governed by hard work, integrity, a sense of adventure, resilience, loyalty, and dependability. 

Remember our definition of happiness; it is an activity of the soul in accordance with complete virtue.  I believe that the strenuous life (which is an active, productive life) is the life we were made for and the life that makes us the happiest.

Maggie:  I like that.  I am going to start living the strenuous life!          




3 thoughts on “Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): On the Role of Work

  1. Humans are “designed?” Do they have functions as well? I thought philosophers got rid of this Aristotelian idea since Pico della Mirandola. For the last 500 years, we have defined humans as not having a function or design which is the basis for our freedom. Do you really want to reintroduce the notion of design after we finally got rid of it?


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