Love the money, hate the job? The effect of bulls**t jobs on happiness

Money for old rope - so why am I exhausted?

Many of us have noticed  a strange paradox but been unable to put a name to it. We believe that a job that doesn’t demand too much of us should mean we have plenty of energy left over for our real interests. Furthermore, we anticipate that if that job not only doesn’t demand much of us but also pays us very well, then we should experience happiness: we have beaten the system! We are being paid for doing practically nothing, what could be a better arrangement?

And yet, after an initial sense of triumph, it can slowly become apparent that the logic - lots of money for little work equals happiness and a fulfilled life  - doesn’t work out. Instead we feel, well, that something isn’t right. That despite the income we aren’t happy at work.

This leaves us caught in a trap: we feel we would be fools to leave such a great sinecure. And so we struggle on, wondering what is wrong with us that we can’t make the most of this; that after work we don’t spring into life as the artist, writer, dressmaker we know ourselves to be at heart; rather that we slump in front of the TV apparently exhausted after doing next to nothing all day. We grind through the endless days of non-work trying to look busy. We wonder why what should be great, and is the envy of friends slowing burning out in the caring professions, feels so awful, indeed, soul destroying. It seems there is a cost to taking the money without feeling we are really delivering value in return.


The Graeber hypothesis

David Graeber has put a name to this particular employment conundrum. He calls the jobs with these characteristics that produce these unexpected outcomes, ‘bull**t jobs’. A bullshit job is one that essentially has no meaning either to the job holder, nor, seemingly, to the wider world. It adds no perceptible value to life. As he says:

Be honest: if your job didn't exist, would anybody miss it? Have you ever wondered why not? Up to 40% of us secretly believe our jobs probably aren't necessary. In other words: they are bulls**t jobs.”

This interesting book is highly recommended. It’s an easy with read with lots of quotes from those in bulls**t jobs. He goes on to offer an interesting analysis of the rise and proliferation of these jobs since the 1980s and the growing of the bulls**tisation of other, previously unaffected and otherwise meaningful jobs, such as teaching.

Thinking of ourselves as  rational economic actors the trap we find ourselves in makes no sense, and so we can’t resolve it.


Your job should seem necessary, if only to you

However, it makes perfect sense from a positive psychology perspective. From work in this field we know that meaningfulness is important to engagement and wellbeing at work. We also know that the boundaries between work and outside work are highly permeable and how we are in one sphere of life will affect how we are in other spheres of life. In other words the draining effect of a bulls**t job will adversely affect our ability to be energised at other times.

Pondering this, I related David’s theory to a model about the value of work from Christopher Michaelson, who suggests that the value can be arranged across two dimensions. He argues that work can offer a high intrinsic value i.e. feel  valuable in itself; it can have an instrumental value, such as being well paid. From these two values we can construct a landscape on which to place different jobs.

As you can see below I have had a go at locating where bulls**t jobs fit on this model e.g. high in instrumental value (well paid), low in intrinsic value (pointless).  It appears they are located directly opposite to many caring jobs e.g. looking after the sick or vulnerable.

I am hopeful this understanding might help people caught in the trap of highly paid yet soul-destroying jobs. It helps make sense of the situation and facilitates a discussion about the kind of job that might be, not just bearable but actually engaging, and whether the cost of switching might be worth it 

What do you think?

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Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs: a theory. Allen Lane UK

Michaelson, C. (2013) The value(s) of work. In Froh, J. J., & Parks, A. C. (2013). Activities for teaching positive psychology: A guide for instructors. American Psychological Association.