How do people feel meaning from work? Are they doing something they love? Do they feel they are servicing their family? Are they feeling respected by their colleagues, appreciated for what they do? Do they feel like they are part of a major contribution to society? Or, do they, what I call, butt-drag their way out of bed every day, because after all, that is what is expected of them. The relationship to work, like all relationships, gives me a window into how the person embraces or avoids his life. The view of their day, not their external or perceived impression by others, but the associations people make to their job intrigues me. As with all of life, there is not necessarily a correlation between a “cool job” and a happy employee.
Lester, forty, comes to mind. He always wanted a corporate job with stock options, and now he has his dream job, enabling him to buy his dream house and take his dream vacations with his family of three children. Lester, although envied by his siblings for his financial success, is miserable on a daily basis. He feels his job contributed very little to society, and only makes he, and the other executives, have more money in his pocket. Although that sounded good to him when he was out of college, not it feels empty, leading him to feel painfully trapped. What went wrong for Lester, I wonder to myself. Did he not understand what was really important to him? Was he trying to please and impress his parents, to his own detriment? Has his wife become a stand-in for his mom, and now he lives in fear of letting her down? My head is filled with hypothesis, but my technique, if you will, is to let Lester speak, to encourage free association. His narrative is one of emptiness and despair, making me wonder about his early childhood, which I know little about.
“Is this an old feeling?” I ask, wondering about the context of his stew of bad feelings. “Yes and no,” Lester says. “I was poor growing up and my mom always said people with money are much happier and they have much easier lives, so I fought and fought to get more and more money. When I was climbing ladders I did not think about my mood or the meaning of what I was doing, I was just thinking about how I could get ahead. Now, that I am where I dreamed to be, I have time to think about how I am spending my time, and I am slowly seeing that my mother’s narrative was only half-true. Money does make life easier, but for me there is a very big cost to pay. For my wife, well that is a different story. ” Lester explains, letting me know he has given this issue a lot of thought. He implies that his wife has the life he wishes he had; a life with financial comfort, but not a life in which she exchanges time for money.
“So you are in a terrible bind.” I say, highlighting my understanding that for him to go to a more meaningful job might make his wife unhappy, as she is quite content with their lifestyle and it would be heartbreaking to her, he says, if they were to downsize their life. “Oh, the worst,” he emphasizes. “I am really stuck.” He says, with despair and hopelessness. “And so you come here with some hope that you can get unstuck,” I say, reminding him that our job together is to help him have meaning in his life, to help him find a way out of a situation, which, at the moment, feels like he cannot navigate. “Yes and no,” he says again. “I need to do something, but I don’t know what, so I am trying this, but frankly, I do not see how you can help me with this,” as he outlines his ambivalence, or as Freud would say, his resistance to opening himself up to new ways of seeing the world. “If you could change what is important to you, you could make different decisions, ” I remind him, meaning that he does not have to assume that his wife would be intolerant of change, because perhaps, just perhaps, this is a projection on his part. “Let’s see where this goes,” he says, jumping to the other side of his ambivalence and propelling us forward.