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  • Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

This post is based on an article by Valentine Poisson for the Danone EVE Programme website ( that I have translated into English, and it's about finding meaning at work. Credit to Chandler Bing for the Gloria Estefan comment...

Meaning: What makes work worth doing?

In a 2017 study on meaning in the workplace, Deloitte puts a number on something that might seem obvious to most people: for 87% of respondents, meaning at work is important regardless of age, status or management level. But what can really bring that meaning into the business world? At first it sounds like a philosophical issue taken from a Monty Pythonfilm... The EVE webmagazine decided to take a closer look.

Rhythm is gonna get you… Was Gloria Estefan right?

The very fact that we need to look for meaning in the workplace suggests that somewhere along the line, it has become lost. What is a job without a reason for doing it? In 1974, the American psychologist Herbert Freudenbergerwas the first to develop an understanding of what has now become a familiar concept: burnout. Burnout is what happens when workers become so exhausted by a frantic pace, in both body and mind, that they end up having a breakdown.

In 2007, the Swiss consultants Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin shed light on the opposite problem, which is a mirror image of the first concept. This time the issue wasn’t about having too much to do, but rather too little. Being underworked can be just as disastrous on employees’ health, and that idea has been developed in a concept known as bore-out, the deadly boredom caused by chronic under-activity. The symptoms are similar as burnout: demotivation, anxiety and sadness.

So before taking a look at the effects of different kinds of tasks, perhaps first we should consider the idea that how busy you are can affect the meaning you find in a job. Could meaning simply be found in the subtle balance between excessive task juggling and utter boredom?

Busting the bullshit 

A new concept came to light in 2018, when Dr. François Baumann coined a precise expression for the suffering felt when there is no meaning to the work a person does: brown-out! It usually refers to a drop in voltage within an electrical power supply, but this new professional pathology has now come to mean “the pain and discomfort felt by the loss of meaning in work objectives and a complete misunderstanding of your role in a business structure”.

Doctor of anthropology David Graber had already noticed the problem in 2013 when he penned an opinion piece entitled “On the phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: a work rant”, which triggered huge online buzz. He expanded his ideas in 2018 when he published Bullshit jobs, a book filled with testimonials giving examples of ridiculous tasks, such as the one carried out by Betsy:

“Most of my job was to interview residents and fill out a recreation form that listed their preferences. That form was then logged on a computer and promptly forgotten about forever (...). The interviews mostly just annoyed the residents, as they knew it was just bullshit paperwork and no one was going to care about their individual preferences.”

So does experiencing a lack of meaning at work mean getting paid to be professionally committed to a task we consider absolutely useless?

Does something need to be useful for it to have meaning?

But what makes a task useful? Should it be profitable either socially and/or economically? Isn’t the idea of work needing to be profitable in order to have meaning a rather sad state of affairs? Another testimony recorded by David Graber recalls:

“I worked as a programmer for a travel company. Some poor person’s job was to receive updated plane timetables via email several times a week and copy them by hand into Excel.”

Ensuring that a plane timetable stays up to date certainly isn’t useless. But there is no meaning in the task because it could so easily be automated, and yet for some reason is not. So perhaps it is better to dig deeper into what drives us to do things, into whether or not they have a purpose. In other words, what really motivates people.

The Whys and Wherefores of the science of motivation

Why, or for what purpose, do we work one way or another? The issue of motivation isn’t limited to (aptly named) Generation Y, and several experts had already examined what triggers motivation well before the new millennium began.

In the 1970s, the professor of psychology and social sciences Edward Deci was one of the great influencers in the theory of management through motivation, and his thinking was inspired by ideas dreamed up by William James in 1890 and Henri Murray in 1937. For Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, our motivation originates from two main sources:

· Extrinsic motivation: all the external reasons an individual has to be motivated. This covers the mechanisms of rewards and punishments (the popular carrot and stick approach!), as well as practical and pragmatic reasoning: we need money to live, therefore we work.

· Intrinsic motivation is derived from within: it relates more to philosophical considerations. In this case, our actions are motivated by our values (success, well-being, balance, love, etc.), and do not require any other input.

Which type of motivation has the most meaning for people? Now there’s an interesting question. And its answer has a huge impact on how we perform a task. A team of American academics, chaired by the professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely, conducted a very simple experiment in 2002: 87 Indian people were invited to play six games. They were divided into three groups, each with a different potential prize (4, 40 or 400 rupees respectively) that could be won depending on how they performed. You’d think that the ones with the highest potential prize money would perform the best, right? Wrong! Players with the highest stakes (400 rupees) actually performed worst across the board, regardless of the type of game!

More than money: the underlying purpose of work

To understand the meaning of work beyond its most obvious outcome (being paid a salary), in 1931 the Austrian researcher Marie Jahoda went to observe a population of unemployed people to learn more about what they had lost when they no longer had their jobs. At the end of her empirical study, she highlighted the five underlying purposes of work:

· Time structure:work helps to perceive time and therefore to keep our lives organized. And that’s why when there is too much or too little work to do we have no determined routine, and we feel overwhelmed.

· Social network: work is an opportunity to socialize, it allows us to meet people and foster relationships with them. A job with no human contact (colleagues, suppliers, etc.) creates the same effect as the absence of work, and increases an individual’s feeling of isolation.

· Skills development: all professional challenges allow us to develop our skills (physical, intellectual, social, organizational, etc.). So work calls upon and values our talents, furthering our professional development.

· Identify affirmation: work provides a social existence. So it’s no accident that one of the first things we ask someone we’ve just met is usually “What do you do?”. Work is a source of personal dignity; it also creates the feeling that we’re somehow contributing to a community. The absence of work, therefore equates to a social death, an empty identity.

· Mental flexibility: when work becomes challenging and takes us out of our comfort zones, whether through a difficult task or a conflict we need to manage, we develop our agilityand our ability to adapt.

This list of purposes is very useful in pinpointing exactly what creates well-being – and meaning in particular – at work. When one or more of the underlying purposes in our work comes under threat, the meaning we find there ebbs away. But that might actually be a good thing: for companies and individuals to strike the right balance, elements of the extrinsic need to be in play, but aren’t quite enough, while elements of the intrinsic allow unique personal expression, a spirit of initiative, and the need to be recognized for our individual worth.

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  • Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

This is an article by Marie Donzel and was written for the Danone EVE Programme. The original French can be found here: and the translation into English is my own work.

Being happy while feeling good about yourself, and having healthy relationships with those around you is the foundation of personal development and positive psychology. And that bundle of goodness has a name: eudemonism. The editorial team at the EVE webmagazine wanted to learn more about this philosophical doctrine that encourages people to be happy for the benefit of everyone.

Rational happiness

Eudemonism can trace its etymology back to ancient Greek term εὐδαιμονία, meaning “beatitude”. So what’s the difference between that and hedonism – from the Greek ἡδονή meaning “pleasure”?

Both clearly have ties with happiness. But hedonism is about enjoying pleasure, and sparing yourself from suffering, while eudemonism is about the genuine satisfaction that life can bring. Eudemonism is happiness with meaning, purpose, and the potential for achievement.

Eudemonism: back to the Ancients

Platonic ideals of “demonic” and virtuous happiness

It all began when Plato became a mouthpiece for Socrates. The ancestor of Western philosophy believed that eudemonism is “demonic” happiness, that is to say, it goes beyond humans, and brings them closer to God when they strive to be wise and virtuous. “The men and women who are gentle and good are also happy” he explains in the Gorgias, “and the unjust and evil are miserable”.

The hedonists of the time laughed at his ideas, just like those who mock the politically correct movement today: how sad that happiness should require such high morals! Pleasures aren’t all moral, far from it.

Aristotle’s intellectualist eudemonism states that happiness is found in truth

The thrill of instant enjoyment and what may sometimes be described as guilty pleasures is hardly supported in Aristotle’s take on eudemonism: the roving philosopher believed that happiness should be sought in truth and within oneself. A clue to finding that happiness: truth lies in balance, even moderation, as well as in reason.

Happy fans of Aristotle don’t strive to satisfy their needs, and especially don’t seek to form opinions. They live their lives using their “educated mind”, paying attention to the outside world but independent of external influences that could corrupt a deep inner quest for truth. Wow. Not much pleasure in that. But let’s try and untie those intellectual knots and start finding some of that real elicit happiness.

Sensualist epicurism: bringing the body into the quest for happiness

Things start improving somewhat with Epicurus, for whom happiness is like a liquid flowing from the body to the mind and from the spirit to the body, provided that you are aware of how lucky you are (and know how to find what the French call kifs in your life) to eat well, sleep comfortably, breathe clean air, feel the warmth of the sun or a gentle breeze, have your needs met and your desires fulfilled.

So, feelings of frustration or the inability to be content with what we have aren’t true suffering. Basically we could say that happiness is when the glass is half full, as long as the water is clear and safe to drink.

Stoic happiness: the ethics of interiority

For the Stoic thinker Zenon, happiness is also a liquid, more precisely “a good flow of life”. And that liquid can flow smoothly when we live intelligently in harmony with nature, and our environment in general. Nothing is insurmountable, not hunger, nor poverty, nor abandonment, nor disasters… We can keep trying to find ways of protecting ourselves, but nothing is certain: a random event, an accident, or the ill-meaning intention of another person can all destroy our efforts to build a secure future.

What doesn’t depend on our own selves cannot be changed, and must be accepted by working on what does depend on our own selves: our thoughts, our judgments, and our will. Integrity gives us the strength to work on building an “inner citadel”, an unpenetrable private self that gives us control over our ability to feel happiness. I may be imprisoned, raped, or tortured, but I will still be myself, and can draw on my strong personal resources to resist those violations.

Eudemonism and engagement theories

Spinoza: live a happy and engaged life

In the seventeenth century, Spinoza began pondering the subject that had long been neglected by Western philosophy: happiness, and set out to create a moral code for joy. Desire was given the central role. Being able to identify what you really want, what drives you forward and motivates your actions (in free and autonomous individuals, obviously), is the path to happiness!

And that happiness will radiate, because it brings you closer to others and grows as you interact with them. If you are to be happy, you need to make others happy too. The idea is to redistribute wealth (the joy of giving as some charities say), share, engage.

Eudemonism and utilitarianism: a shared interest in meaningful causes

Utilitarian economists and their liberal descendants wholeheartedly agree: people who do what they love (a slight diversion from the Spinozist notion of desire) put their heart and soul into doing it. Nothing beats an individual who is deeply motivated to give the best of him or herself.

And the ideas behind productivity are the result of that: ensure well-being at work, listen to the need for a higher purpose than providing an income to feed the family, ensure employees understand the meaning of what they are doing, all contribute to good employee/employer relations. The first doesn’t watch the clock, the second provides the space and time to create value in line with the company’s main objective. And you never know, the expertise and experience acquired by an employee who is committed to ecology, charity work or feminism might even come in handy!

However, there is a risk of misunderstanding, even a conflict of loyalty: is an employee who channels energy into personal convictions and acquires skills and expertise in those areas of activism likely to rise up once day against the company if it doesn’t respect the environment enough, or doesn’t practice social diversity or professional equality?

So, supporting a cause implicitly depends on justifying a contribution to performance: feminism must focus on promoting diversity as a means to drive innovation; a keen knowledge of environmental issues must be used to enhance the CSR policy or a company’s ecosystem strategy, sensitivity to people must be used enrich a company’s insight into its market, help to identify atypical talent and benefit the organization’s “human side”.

Eudemonism and impact: how can meaning, well-being and economic and social performance be combined?

Positive leadership: be well, act well

Positive psychology resuscitated the idea of eudemonism in the 1990s. This take on personal development is about creating strong individuals with finely-honed social skills, who will then positively impact everyone and everything around them. The PERMA model developed by the godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, is symptomatic of this vision: he recommends using Positive Emotions (P) to Engage (E) in the present and for the benefit of the future, and influence others using exemplary leadershipbased on Relationships (R) and respect for each person’s need for Meaning (M) and Accomplishment (A).

The approach wins support because it appeals to common sense: obviously it’s preferable to have woke trailblazers who are balanced, generous, open-minded and respectful.

But positive leadership then runs into a fundamental issue: the poorly demonstrated performance of the runoff principle in change making. In other words, who is to say that an individual with a positive personal outlook is also positively impacting his or her environment? In what way is a confirmed eudemonist able to combine personal benefit with the benefit of other people within his or her family, company or social circles?

Happiness at work: eudemonism in action?

Chief Happiness Officer: a study in eudemonism

And suddenly, Chief Happiness Officers start popping up in the business world! Their job is to ensure that everyone in the company benefits from conditions that enhance their well-being, as well as their personal fulfillment or even happiness.

Because “Happy employees are half as sick, six times less absent, nine times more loyal, 31% more productive and 55% more creative,” says conference speaker and founder of HappyPerformance Laurence Vanhée, basing her findings on various studies carried out by MIT and Harvard.  And those roles are growing quickly within businesses: the club they belong to in France reports that no fewer than 200 large companies now have a CHO.

Can we really make other people happy?

It doesn’t take long to find the irony in the concept: by its very essence, happiness is philosophical, complex and free, so can it really be quantified using a set of KPIs, and measured as a factor impacting profitability? “Instead of admitting that happiness is something that happens to us or doesn’t happen, depending on parameters that are sometimes beyond our control, it is misleadingly presented as a goal that is directly attainable, immediately accessible, and based on formulas”, point out Nicolas Bouzou and Julia de Funès in their book La Comédie (in)humaine which was published in September 2018.

Are companies supposed to create happiness or money?

Others criticize the concept as looking at business through rose-colored glasses. Change expert Philippe Schleiter, author of Management: le grand retour du réel (2017) believes that “men and women aren’t looking to be pampered, spoiled or comforted in the workplace. On the contrary, they want to be seen as autonomous and responsible beings, able to take initiatives, take on challenges, and through their hard work, contribute to collective projects that are bigger than they are, and of which they can be proud. In other words, if managers want to ensure that their employees are happy, the best way is for them to choose passion over compassion”.

His approach is eudemonist in its own way, because it is about passion, independence, and meaning, but calls for a return to conventional leadership, which is mostly about economic profitability and dabbles only in well-being at work with regards to the framework of legal provisions that guarantee employees safety and physical and psychological integrity.

Eudemonism for neo-paternalism?

In contrast to this conservative criticism, the authors of Happycratie (2018), Eva Illouz and Edgar Cabanas, point out the risk posed by neo-paternalism that is no longer satisfied with offering employees sports facilities and other distractions, just like during the Industrial Revolution, but encroaches onto their emotions, even their private lives, possibly depriving them of boundaries between their work life, social life and personal life… to the point where their critical eye begins to droop wearily. “We run businesses today by promising happiness and holding up positive feelings as standards. If we promise somebody something then we secure their loyalty. The promise of happiness is made on the condition of working and transforming the self. Working on yourself is a way of being controlled,” says Eva Illouz in an interview with Le Monde.

For empowering and responsibilizing eudemonism

All this criticism challenges quality-of-life-at-work professionals who go on promoting flexible and empathic leadership that flies in the face of traditionalist perceptions of vertical authority, while opposing the table football caricature as the ultimate source of pleasure at work and suspicions of underlying authoritarianism that “happycratie” may involve.

As ideas about happiness in the workplace evolve, the challenge is no longer to make employees happy merely for the purposes of productivity but to extend the company’s mission as a stakeholder in society, to include its responsibility to empower its employees. This guided empowerment (through training & learning, the right to error, the opportunity to take part in intrapreneurship programs or other undertakings that value initiative) goes hand-in-hand with a parallel expectation for employee empowerment, especially with regard to taking control of their professional project: the paternalistic company has had its day, long live reasoned and autonomous engagement from each individual person.

Marie Donzel, for the EVE webmagazine. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.

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  • Ruth Simpson

I had no idea where to start with a web page but I thought it would be fairly easy to write about what I do. Turns out creating web content is trickier than it looks.

My home town of Chablis is wonderful in many ways, but one of its great assets is that the people here are consistently surprising. I had vaguely heard that there was a woman with a communications company in the village and my husband had worked with her on some copy for our winery website, but I hadn't realised just how much of an asset she was going to be.

I was truly in the company of a design guru. I met with her about a year ago when I first wanted to create a website, but hadn't knuckled down and got anything on "paper". She assured me that she knew how to create websites and could offer me a package using various tools that were completely unfamiliar to me, so I gave her the go-ahead.

In September 2018 I finally set the ball rolling and we met to discuss my ideas. I already had my logo by then, so we used those colours as a starting point. With Sébastien's great photos also in the bag by early October, Elodie was able to put together some initial ideas using Wix, the website creation tool that hosts this blog.

Her very first suggestions were instantly appealing. She had created sections for each area I wanted to cover, and had a fabulous timeline idea as a way to present my CV, which otherwise seemed rather dull and wordy (take a look at the main site to see the timeline up close).

She gave me a tutorial on how to use Wix, and I managed to get a grasp of its workings from there. And then my site was in my hands!

As a genuine language nerd, aside from the joy of learning something new, what I loved the most about this experience was seeing my original English writing translated into French. It's always me translating from French, but seeing Elodie's writing and how she conveyed my ideas in my second language was a fantastic experience.

So now I have my website and my blog. Perhaps I should be putting fingers to keys and drumming up some trade to make it all worthwhile?

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