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When describing success, the most common responses that people give are things like wealth, achievement, popularity, or being influential. These ideas associated with success, over the years, have led to the emergence of the concept of workism. Workism is the belief that work is the centerpiece of our identity and purpose of life.

Due to this belief, people have developed the idea of always being involved in work, trying to be as productive as possible, and in that process neglecting everything else such as spending time by themselves, having meaningful social interactions, and even their mental health. It is because of this, especially in urban settings, the culture of being busy or busyness has developed. Being busy has been associated with self-esteem.

The reason why this has been associated with success is that like many of the other ideas that are there in society, this is socially constructed. Social constructionism can be traced back to the philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist Karl Marx with his concept of false consciousness with respect to class and hegemony. The term was first used by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, in their book The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. They suggested that reality is socially constructed. The concepts that are used in everyday life are constructions that have emerged over the years through social interactions and shared meanings. These everyday notions become so deeply embedded in the way people think that they are believed to be true. 

In this way, for generations, certain ideas keep getting carried forward, without even being questioned. In other words, it can be said that everyday notions are developed by society. Knowledge systems are embedded within society in such a way that they are seen to be true.

Many of the notions that are there within society are socially constructed such as gender or morality. In the same way, the idea that success means money and fame is socially constructed. This idea of success becomes so much ingrained within individuals that they are not able to look beyond that. People begin to see this socially constructed idea of success to be the benchmark.

Once there is a benchmark, a natural tendency of making comparisons with respect to that benchmark begins. The social psychologist, Leon Festinger suggests that individuals have a tendency to make social comparisons - individuals evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to others. 

Social comparison has been found to be an inappropriate way of evaluation. It often gives individuals an inaccurate picture of themselves. It can make them feel inferior and lead to mental health issues.

Social comparisons are inaccurate because each individual is unique. Individuals being unique has been emphasized a lot within the discipline of psychology. The psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler emphasized on the unique motivations of human beings and the importance of each individual’s niche in society. Further, the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner suggested that people differ in their abilities from one another. According to him, if one person is strong in a particular ability it is not necessary that the other person will also have similar strengths in that ability, because the other person may be as good or better in some other ability.

The understanding that each individual is unique allows them not to fall trap of making meaningless social comparisons. It gives an understanding that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and that people differ with respect to the abilities they have.

Being self-aware helps a lot in the understanding of this uniqueness of individuals. Self-awareness is focusing attention on internal self-aspects such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, changes in mood, and external self-aspects like appearance. It helps in understanding one’s internal states and how they relate to the surroundings. Self-awareness is thus a deep understanding of oneself, which has been found to be helpful in many ways.

A high self-awareness makes people realize their strengths and weaknesses and helps them in understanding their true potential, giving direction and purpose in life. According to the positive psychologist Martin Seligman, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses leads to greater wellbeing and leads to having meaning in life.

A high self-awareness, thus, strengthens the idea of uniqueness, gives a realization that people are different from each other, gives an understanding that social comparisons are misleading, and that one needs to choose their own path rather than going along socially constructed benchmarks. It increases self-efficacy and self-determination. It gives an understanding of the true potential as well as what really interests the individual, and what gives satisfaction and meaning to the individual. This makes it easier for the individual to be intrinsically motivated.

Intrinsic motivation is engagement in behavior or activity that is inherently satisfying. It characterizes behaviors that are fun, interesting, and optimally challenging. If activities do not involve such qualities then there is little motivation to engage in them.

Intrinsic motivation can be said to be the motivation that comes from within the individual rather than from external factors such as money or high status. It is the motivation that comes from the pleasure that one gets from the task itself or from the sense of satisfaction that one gets in even working on a task.

In this way, it can be said that intrinsic motivation is non-instrumental in nature - it is not being involved in activities that are contingent upon any external outcome that is separable from the behavior itself. For instance, being involved in writing because it gives a sense of excitement and satisfaction, then the person is intrinsically motivated. If the person does not derive much satisfaction from writing and is only involved in it for the desire to get fame or money, then it is not characteristic of intrinsic motivation.

Further, intrinsic motivation involves being motivated by self-generated factors such as responsibility, freedom to act, development and use of skills and abilities, interesting and challenging work, and opportunities for advancement. All these factors have a deeper and longer-term effect.

Therefore, people should be intrinsically motivated in the things that they do. Being able to derive intrinsic motivation from work increases focus and makes the individual want to work without feeling overburdened and neglecting their mental health. It helps to be satisfied with the work that one is doing rather than monotonously looking for external rewards and milestones. It also allows the individual to continuously challenge themselves and work towards their personal growth.

Intrinsic motivation is an integral aspect of the self-determination theory, which was proposed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. The self-determination theory focuses on three fundamental psychological needs - competence, autonomy, and relatedness. People are most fulfilled in their lives when they are able to satisfy these fundamental needs.

Competence reflects a human need to master new challenges and to perfect skills. This need motivates much exploratory and growth-inducing human behavior. The behavior becomes its own reward, which means that it is intrinsically motivated. The need for autonomy represents an attempt to achieve greater freedom and regulation. It leads to greater self-integration, feelings of personal control, and self-actualization. The third basic need, relatedness, refers to the desire to form meaningful bonds with others.

The self-determination theory suggests that people are naturally oriented towards growth. People try to integrate new experiences, they develop their needs and interests and they try to connect with others as well as the outside world. If the needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness are fulfilled then the individual will feel a sense of fulfillment and meaning in life. This is actually what success is all about.

The organizational psychologist Adam Grant suggests that success is quality of life and not quantity of our achievements. He suggests that in the long run, the choice between success and wellbeing is a false dichotomy. Achieving goals does not have to mean to get drained out. The best way to achieve goals is to lead a life that is vivifying, rejuvenating, and revitalizing.

Success is not about what others tell us or make us believe. Success is actually what we think about ourselves. It is about identifying our abilities and achieving our true potential, which in the long run also enhances wellbeing, and helps in deriving intrinsic motivation, which eventually makes the individual move towards self-enhancement and personal growth. This is something that is very different from workism and the socially constructed idea of success.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Brian Arbenz said...

Thank you for a well thought out alternative to the oversimplified "anti work" notion. I've linked to this in my blog piece on this matter at:

Saif Farooqi said...

Thank you! Glad that you used it as a link in your blog-post. Really appreciate it.