How Can Work Offer Us Freedom

For Andrew Soren, experiencing freedom while working is possible. There are two ways in which people can experience freedom at work: freedom from physical harm and the freedom to have autonomy.

Work offering freedom

Nick: Let's move on to a really interesting word, a word I think all of us want to experience. And this is freedom. You mentioned in your paper that work must offer us freedom. Do you want to expand on that?

Andrew: This is a way of framing work that actually comes out of the United Nations, originally the Industrial Labor Organization, which kind of got subsumed by the UN over the last couple of decades.

You know, work is really important in our lives. Again, the UN says that it's so crucial that it's like necessary to our dignity, well-being, and development as a human being. I mean, we spend more time, at least most of us who are probably listening to this, most of us spend more time working than doing just about anything else than sleeping in our lives.

So again, the UN through the Industrial Labor Organization would say that, that means that work needs to be fundamentally decent. And they describe decent work as having four major attributes: equity, security, dignity, and freedom.

So what's the freedom part? Well, the freedom part is really, you can think about it in two ways: freedom from and freedom to. For work to be decent, work has to be free from things like physical or psychological harm, or interference or domination. You know, all the human rights aspects that you would expect the UN to be thinking about.

But work also should offer us freedom to—things like personal dignity, freedom to having autonomy in the choices that we make, freedom to choose ethics, right over wrong, freedom to self realize—all that kind of wonderful eudaimonic stuff that we were talking about. Freedom to develop your best self, freedom to pursue what you think is valuable and purposeful in life.

So when we talk about work offering freedom, we’re talking about both freedom from and freedom to.

Nick: It's an interesting word and concept, freedom. And to offer a perspective that might also tie in to this, by a research pioneer on the concept of ikigai. Her name was Mieko Kamiya. She discovered the seven ikigai needs and one was freedom.

She described freedom as, obviously, you have freedom of choice. But with those choices, she said, there's two sort of significant ones that people run away from. And one was basically delayed gratification—that you put aside an immediate freedom for a better freedom in the future.

But perhaps more significantly, this one's really interesting, is you put aside your personal freedom for a freedom that serves a greater good. So I'm sure many people do that in their work. And she described it as you’re freely choosing inconvenience to serve a greater good, but that's an expression of freedom in and of itself.

So would you relate that to work? That some people do put aside their personal freedom to do work that's meaningful, challenging, but they are sacrificing a part of their personal freedom at the same time?

Andrew: It's a beautiful way of articulating it. I think that there's a lot of people that we can talk a little bit about that in a bit, in terms of the challenges, the dark sides of meaningful work. But I think you've foreshadowed that really, really nicely that people who choose to engage in deeply meaningful work are often making pretty extraordinary personal sacrifices.

And I think that MIDUS literature maybe suggests some of that. Although frankly, I'm not sure that MIDUS actually looks necessarily at the degree of meaning of the work. It brings me back to this notion of eudaimonic well-being versus hedonic well-being, those were the two kinds of ancient Greek perspectives. And both of those words can translate into happiness. So it's interesting to think about it, like freedom versus happiness.

But you can think about happiness is just as much good things with as few bad things as possible, which is really the hedonic way of thinking about, we want comfort, we want pleasure, we want to just feel good. And that's what it is.

Which was just very different than this eudaimonic orientation, which is hard work, and you're like struggling with virtue, and you're trying to figure out how to screw up a little less tomorrow than you did today. That's just going to be a lifelong pursuit, it's about the journey, and not really any kind of destination. And in some ways, it sucks. And in some ways, it's hard.

And to think that that's actually what a perspective of happiness is, and I think, hurt a lot of people's brains. And yet, I think anybody who's actually tried to do that work, knows that it's immensely, it has the potential to be immensely fulfilling and satisfying, in a way that just surrounding yourself with future comforts.