You might assume that our forebears hated the brutish labor that life in the wilderness required of them. Anthropologists, however, have discovered that pre-agrarian workers relished digging up tubers, forging tools, and working in general. Modern brain imaging suggests that performing work typical in hunter-gatherer societies floods the brain with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin — the same feel-good chemicals that sex and dessert produce. There is also evidence that prehistoric labor reduced anxiety, addiction, depression, dissatisfaction, emotional exhaustion, sleep difficulties, and suicidal thoughts. Indeed, prehistoric work felt so good that hunter-gatherer languages typically didn’t have a word to differentiate it from socializing or playing games. Labor and leisure were one and the same.
We modern folk are far less likely to conflate work with activities that support mental wellness, like resting and socializing. We have various terms that define work, and many of them, like “grind” and “slog,” make it sound unappealing. Accordingly, our first response to frayed emotions is to cancel some or all work. Millions of employees have opted out of work, often citing mental health considerations, in what is being called the Great Resignation.
Stopping work is a sensible short-term prescription — especially since work is often a culprit in anxiety and other mental health issues — but it’s short-sighted. Treating work like a toxin that we limit is akin to helping victims of food poisoning by feeding them smaller portions of contaminated food. Instead of curbing work, we could restore its healthfulness.
The key ingredient that made prehistoric labor more conducive to mental health than today’s labor is “social purpose,” defined as meaningful contributions to others’ welfare. As relatively weak and fragile creatures, we Homo sapiens survived harsh conditions by routinely helping others, especially through work. Our prehistoric ancestors hunted woolly mammoths not solely for their own family but to throw a tribal feast. They cleared trees not only to build their own home but for the benefit of the entire village. Evolution has therefore encoded in all humans a primal reflex to emotionally deflate when their labor is purely self-serving and bask when it serves a greater cause.
Sadly, the majority of today’s employees can perform their jobs well and nevertheless find themselves slouching in front of the TV on Friday evening, dismayed that their workweek was meaningless. Fortunately, inventive people have found a way to ignite social purpose in their work, a practice I’ve dubbed “job purposing.”
For example, HP trains and supports sales staff on how to help business customers reduce their carbon footprint, energy consumption, and water use. Making environmental protection part of standard sales calls might appear too episodic a pursuit of social purpose to boost employee wellness, but HP data indicates that it does indeed boost it. Other research confirms that even a few minutes of social purpose boosts happiness for weeks. I’ve documented over a dozen managers who apply light touches of job purposing, such as rewarding high performers with a charitable donation to the nonprofit organization of the employee’s choice or offering unfilled seats in their leadership training to staff from local nonprofits. All of these managers report a link to higher employee well-being and performance.
Lower-level employees also can job-purpose their own work. Parking attendants can check tire tread and alert customers if their tires are bald, potentially reducing car accidents. Administrative assistants can order eco-friendly supplies and make the world a little more sustainable. Window washers at pediatric hospitals can wear superhero costumes to delight hospitalized children on the other side of the glass. In short, anybody in any job can use work as a platform for meaningful contributions to others’ welfare.
A decade ago, I suffered an excruciating episode of grieving. As Simone Biles and many other Americans have done recently, I took a break from work. A sleepless and joyless week into this pause, my phone flashed with the name of someone new to my team, someone I had agreed to mentor. Darn. I had forgotten to cancel my first mentoring session with her. Puffy-eyed and listless, I answered the call. As it turned out, that conversation about advancing her ambitions replaced my crushing hopelessness with a glimmer of the possibility that one day I would laugh again.
In the days preceding that meeting, I had dabbled in work several times but always slumped back into idleness. This one hour of helping a coworker inspired me to resume working full time, but with a deeper commitment to making meaningful contributions through my job. Since then, I’ve taken vacation days but no mental health days. If anything, I now consider my job a health practice, like exercise and sleep.
More than a year into the pandemic, many workers are as lost and hurt as I was. Meanwhile, businesses are struggling to bring workers back, both physically and emotionally. Millions of years of evolution suggests that to have work feel good, we need it to do good.
Bea Boccalandro is an adviser to over a dozen Fortune 500 companies and author of “Do Good at Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing.”