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Love and Work: The Route to Happiness

“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you; but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” - Henry Thoreau

Type “What makes people…” or “How can I be…” into Google and one of the first predictions made for the next word will be “happy”. Lots of people are trying to figure out how to be happy, and Google knows it. And if you look at the articles that Google offers, you’ll find lots of suggestions: exercise, getting enough sleep, fake it till you feel it, choosing to be happy, being grateful, forgiving others, meditation, friendship, being married, being religious, giving to others, making love, owning a pet…the list is enormous.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology, had a much shorter list. He said “Love and work….work and love, that’s all there is.” Freud is out of favor these days because of some of his more outlandish ideas, but if you believe that there is such a thing as the unconscious, or that people can be in denial, or that they sometimes repress bad feelings, then you’re a Freudian, because these were all his ideas.

So what did the good doctor mean by “Love and work”? I don’t think he just meant that we should all get married and spend 40 hours a week at our jobs.


Sure, this includes romantic love, but Freud meant much more than this. Love can also be what we feel for our children, parents, friends, pets, or perhaps, for the devout, God. It means putting someone else ahead of ourselves and achieving a level of intimacy with that person or entity — so that either they understand us thoroughly, or we understand them, or both sides understand each other. It is the feeling of truly connecting to another being, regardless of whether it is animal, human or spiritual.

The need to be close to others seems to be hardwired into the human psyche; as babies, if we’re not held and touched enough, we stop growing and even die. As adults, while the need for physical contact may exist, it is the need for emotional intimacy that seems equally, or perhaps more important. Many of us try to find that intimacy in a romantic partner; others invest themselves in caring for children or parents; still others form deeply committed friendships, while some turn to animals or a higher being. We do this with varying degrees of success, and those who cannot find anyone or anything to be close to truly struggle.

Loving another is, however, risky. Loved ones die, or leave us, or grow up and form families of their own. But as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”


Freud meant that humans have a need for a productive role in society. Having such a role does not always mean receiving a salary. For that matter, receiving a salary doesn’t imply a productive role. It does mean that what we do has to feel meaningful and has to contribute in some way to others, either directly or indirectly.

Thus, a parent who devotes him or herself to raising children may not receive a salary, but certainly has work (hard work at that). Those who devote time and energy to their religious organization, or volunteer, create music or art, participate in politics, or care for an aging parent — they all work, whether or not they’re paid.

On the flip side, working for a salary in an organization we don’t like or believe in, performing tasks that don’t benefit others in pursuit of a goal that we don’t agree with — Freud would not call that work, regardless of how much we are paid. That doesn’t mean that we should only work for groups that have morally nobel goals: Every organization, whether a bank, laundry shop, government or widget maker, contributes to shareholders, colleagues, society and the economy.

Just as “love” means putting another ahead of oneself, “work” means devoting our energies to something bigger than ourselves. Unloved babies cannot thrive, and the elderly, without work, sometimes cannot survive. (Experiments have shown that residents in nursing homes live longer when they are given responsibility for another living thing, even if that means something as simple as watering a plant.)

How to be happy

And so we come to the paradox of happiness. The more we pursue it, the more we do things to benefit ourselves, the more it slips from our grasp — just ask the idle rich. Instead, as Freud said, it’s about love and work. Everything else is unimportant. Pursue intimacy with others, and devote yourself to things that are bigger and more important than yourself.


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