Is your work meaningful?

sysiphus-tee-wht by fouro boros

Beware: worthless, pointless, trivial and futile activity ahead

Rachel Mulvey’s post last week on the existential nature of continuing professional development has turned my thoughts once again to the concept of meaningfulness.

Partly inspired by Rachel’s idea, I have been writing an article for the Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling on the use of narrative techniques in reflective practice for guidance practitioners (I know, exciting stuff, huh?). As part of my research for this piece I came across an article by W.D. Joske on Philosophy and the meaning of life’. Unlike many of the philosophy articles I’ve tried (and failed) to get to grips with, this was actually quite readable because Joske demonstrates a subtle, dry sense of humour in his writing.

…many people are afraid of philosophy precisely because they dread being forced to the horrifying conclusion that life is meaningless, so that human activities are ultimately insignificant, absurd and inconsequential

The world is neutral and cannot give meaning to men, If someone wants life to be meaningful he cannot discover that meaning but must provide it himself. How we go about giving meaning to life seems to depend upon the society we accept as our own; a Frenchman might leap into the dark, an American go to a psycho-analyst, and an Englishman cease asking embarrassing questions.

As well as being amusing, Joske is quite analytical and, in his attempt to explore meaning, he breaks down the meaninglessness of activities into four essential elements: worthlessness, pointlessness, triviality and futility.

Elements of meaninglessness

  • Worthlessness — the activity lacks intrinsic merit. Is the activity worth doing for its own sake, even if it doesn’t lead to anything? Does it provide a reward merely from the doing? Does the performance of the activity satisfy some internal physiological, psychological or emotional need?
  • Pointlessness — the activity does not serve towards the fulfilment of a particular purpose. Does the activity result in the achievement of a goal? Even if it is drudgery, does it serve a purpose beyond personal satisfaction?
  • Triviality — the end doesn’t justify the means. Is the goal worth the effort? Are the losses incurred in conducting the activity more than the gains accrued from achieving the end result?
  • Futility — the ends are unachievable. Is what you want to achieve actually possible? Is success or failure out of your control or independent of your efforts?

Joske argues that for an activity to be ‘fully meaningful’ it must not suffer from any of the deficits of worthlessness, pointlessness, triviality or futility. As an example of something truly meaningless, Joske gives the example of Sysiphus from Greek mythology, whose punishment from the gods was to eternally push a rock up a hill only to have it roll down the other side.

In more positive language: a fully-meaningful activity must be rewarding in itself, it must serve a purpose, that purpose must be significant and must be achievable. How many of your work activities satisfy all of those criteria?

Fortunately, Joske doesn’t expect us to be that demanding.

However, few of us have such high expectations, and we are content to perform tasks that are not fully meaningful. We will endure drudgery if we can accomplish something worthwhile, and we are happy playing pointless games.

An action may be valuable rather than fully meaningful if it satisfies some of the criteria but not all.

Even the performance of a futile task is justified if it is fun, and Sisyphus would have defeated the intentions of the Gods if he had happened to like rolling rocks up hills.

So, is your work valuable or fully meaningful — or are you rolling rocks up hills?

Further reading

Joske, W.D. (1974). Philosophy and the meaning of life. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 52(2), 93-104. DOI: 10.1080/00048407412341101

Related post: The Meaning Triangle, Existential Thoughts

And as Joske was a philosopher from an Australian university, I think this is appropriate… (warning: some may be offended by the language or the depiction of Australians)

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  1. #1 by London Counselling on 16 September 2011 - 23:53

    Whether or not work is viewed as ultimately useful frequently depends on whether the person making the judgement is in the same field and sees a use for the results. This seems to especially prevalent in the humanities/liberal arts fields.

  2. #2 by Khan-conor Foxx on 17 September 2011 - 10:02

    A ‘meaning’ attached to an object or event-process eventually is whatever you have assigned to it and eventually will be reviewed and/ or rethought…and attached to change backward to conform with what others have already deemed its’ meaning. Religious philosophy is about the worst for this ‘holding’ to the faith of the believed ‘truthful’ meaning. Ultimately, the four elements of meaninglessness become goals in themselves: Triviality, Pointlessness, Worthlessness, and their Worthlessness all can be attributes of seemingly meaningfulness but meritorious in themselves.
    Climbing a mountain can be for the peak or for the process.

    • #3 by David Winter on 5 October 2011 - 17:55

      That’s an important point. It’s probably a good idea to regularly question our grounds for assigning meaning to our activities. What once gave our actions meaning may no longer be valid for us. However, that’s quite a scary prospect. What if we come to the conclusion that nothing is meaningful? I guess I can understand why people would want to cling on to a system of meaning even if it has lost its original relevance – the risk of loss is greater than the risk of sticking with something.

      I’m not sure that religion is the only or the worst culprit in this area. Any ideology which discourages questioning and re-evaluation could be equally guilty.

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