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Monday, April 25, 2016


I've recently started reading Feeling Good, a book by David Burns. The author's suggestions for improving mood and self esteem have been immensely helpful. I would like to highlight the ideas discussed in one chapter in particular because I felt especially connected with the issues that were covered. The particular section I would like to share is about work and how so many of us measure our worth through our professional achievements.

The idea is familiar to many of us:
"My worth as a human being is proportional to what I have achieved in my life." This attitude is at the core of Western culture and the Protestant work ethic. It sounds innocent enough. In fact, it is self-defeating, grossly inaccurate, and malignant... Essentially, your work ethic allows you to feel you've earned personal worth and the right to feel happy.
Like many others, I never thought to question such a basic principle that seems to be widely endorsed by society at large. I never thought twice about the danger of deriving a substantial part of my worth from professional achievements and attempting to attain meaningful work. Taken at face value, it certainly makes sense to base our worth and identity off such things because these kinds of priorities can potentially push us to be more competent professionals, advance faster in our careers, and seek to attain a job that gives us a sense of meaning.  However, there is a significant downside to basing our worth on such goals and principles:
In the absence of achievement, you'll feel worthless because you'll have no other basis for self-respect and fulfillment. Suppose as a result of illness, business reversal, retirement, or some other factor beyond your control, you find you are unable to produce at the same high level for a period of time.
What will happen to us if the above scenario comes true? By basing our worth on our professional achievements, we are placing ourselves in a position where our value as a human being is closely connected to external factors outside our control. The examples above (and many others) are largely outside our control and if any of them happen to us, there is a chance that we will experience depression symptoms and feel like our lives lack direction and meaning.

However, assuming troubles don't fall upon us, "[we] will still have one great disadvantage--the lack of true self-esteem." As long as our worth is conditional and based on factors outside our control, we will have immense difficulty valuing ourselves as people. Every time there is a chance of failure, we will run the risk of experiencing strong feelings of worthlessness.

Dr. Burns also attacks the concept of worth itself and shines a spotlight on it to look at it more critically:
You must acknowledge that human "worth" is just an abstraction; it doesn't exist. Hence, there is actually no such thing as human worth. Therefore, you cannot have it or fail to have it, and it cannot be measured. Worth is not a "thing," it is just a global concept. It is so generalized that it has no concrete meaning.
Instead of focusing on the abstract idea of worth, we should instead prioritize the present and attaining a sense of "satisfaction, pleasure, learning, mastery, personal growth and communication with others [because] the majority of life's satisfactions do not require great achievement at all."

Although the ideas discussed here are mostly in the context of work, these lessons can be applied in other settings as well. For instance, with how prevalent social media is, it can be very tempting to start basing our value on how many likes, retweets, and positive exposure we get. The sense of happiness and boost in self-esteem can feel great but it's ultimately an illusion because it's short-lived and it's once again based on factors that are outside our control. Once the positive approval fades, so does our sense of happiness and our self-esteem.  Additionally, the whole experience feels like we're running on a treadmill that never stops because we're continually seeking more and more approval. As stated before, this is not achieving "true self-esteem."

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with valuing professional achievements because accomplishments in such a setting can be very satisfying and bring us immense joy. However, the trouble starts once we start basing our happiness and value as human beings on these achievements. Once this happens, we start to lose control of our ability to experience genuine and consistent happiness.

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