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Let us start the journey with two questions: (1) what do we work fort? (2) we frequently question the purposes of work, but few of us ask this question: what do we NOT work for? For leisure, for life? Typically, based on my observations, people have three different understandings of the relationship between work and life.

Three Patterns

(1) life = resting life. Work and life are contradictory with each other.

  • 1.1 work is for life. As Aristotle argues, our work life should pay for our resting life. In this view, work is the dragon, life is the princess we try to rescue. People work in pursuit of rest, taking work as the ticket to a worry-free, super happy retirement life.

  • 1.2 Life is for work. We recover from having life—relationship, good food, rest—to better work.

(2) life = work life + nonwork life. Work for not work, not work for work.

Work is part of life. Nonwork life and work life refuel each other. Through this refueling, positive circle, we struck a work-(nonwork)life balance.

View 2 is more reasonable than view 1.1 and view 1.2, given its’ recognition that work is also part of life, but this recognition is not enough. All these perspectives focus on the interaction and relationship between “work” and “nonwork life”, but life is more than the combination/sum of work and nonwork. I’ll propose my understanding of life, nonwork, and work.

(3) life > work life + nonwork life. Work for (the purposes of) life, not work for (the purposes of) life.

Work-life and nonwork life are just our classifications of different things we do in life, among which some are considered working while some are not. The description of what we do behaviorally fails to capture the essence of living and doing things.

I agree with McNeff (2021) that work-life balance is a myth because it prevents people from seeing the underlying, true needs: spiritual, emotional, professional, physical needs, etc. In this myth, people can only see the needs for work and for not work, without seeing why we have the needs for them. We need to work or not work because they satisfy our true needs. For example, working as a philosopher may satisfy one’s spiritual needs (to understand and personalize the world) and professional needs (to be good at philosophical thinking) at the same time. Since this work cannot cover emotional needs, they may seek social support from relationships.

I believe that humans have the need to find the purposes of life, no matter how much they are aware of it. Instead of limiting to work and nonwork, we should escape this track and ask: what are all the things for? What is beyond the sum of work and nonwork life?

Both working and not working are just approaches through which we seek the purposes of life, the ultimate goal. If we mistake the approach as the goal, we are limited in the “work-life balance myth” track, where we can only deal with/try to balance the approaches but do not really go anywhere.

Revisit perspectives with and without purposes

Seeing work and not work as approaches to pursue the purposes of life also explains, to a certain degree, the variant understandings of work-life relationships. Life’s purposes is subjective. Though it is not crystal clear to everyone, it influences one’s understandings of the world implicitly.

Recall the first two perspectives, namely work is for life and life is for work. If we only look at work and nonwork, these two views seem contradictory to each other, but they don’t necessarily are. Where are the differences lie? It’s the understanding of life’s purposes. If the work contributes to one’s purposes of life

  • For people holding the first perspective, work seems to be the burden humans have to get rid of to achieve a higher level of life, as Harari (2017) implies in the article. Their understanding of the purposes of life may not be approached through work.

  • For people holding the second perspective, they can work hard and labor happily, just as President Xi (2013) encourages. In their understandings, work reflects the purposes of life.

At this point, we seem to get a rough answer for what is ethical work. Ethical work is, at least to me, the work whose purposes aligns with one’s understandings of life purposes.

While without thinking about and seeing the purposes, people may fall into the track of alienation and involution. Their answer for “what do they work, not work, and live for” would be either work to survive or live to work.

Alienation- work to survive

If one can not see the life purposes, surely they have no idea how working contributes to the purposes of life. Then, “work to live” is reduced to “work to survive”. Survive refers to biologically staying alive, living without purposes.

People are alienated from the purposes of their working activity is when alienation happens. They shift from free workers, who labor for their own life purposes, to forced labor, who are forced to work for others to earn the living (Marx & Engels, 1820-1895; as cited by Horowitz, 2010). Work becomes painful labor to survive.

What is worse, through working without purposes, humans are metamorphosed into things. As Emerson (1837) points out, the planer seldom sees the dignity of his ministry, because all he/she sees is the bushel and cart, nothing else.

“The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man…” (Emerson, 1837). Working without seeing the purposes can be dangerous because people may thus be transformed from a complete man into pieces of working machines.

In other words, a man is transformed into a “worker”, a creature (or something) with a specific set of capabilities, who keeps working without knowing why it has to work. The man is no longer alive, the working monster survives.

Involution - live to work

If people cannot see or try to see their self-defined purposes of life, they may mistake others’ narratives of purposes as their own. That is, what others consider good is good, and what others chasing for is worthy of chasing for. If a huge amount of people take the same set of generally accepted, quantified standards, they get stuck in the involution that they constitute together themselves. Involution refers to the phenomenon that people compete for limited resources in the same way, where only the winners gain what they want (Qianni & Shifan, 2020). For instance, students fight for a higher ranking of grades, so they all study so hard that exceed the amount of learning they need. Involution is endless, energy-straining, and no way to exist until participants realize that they do not have to use the same methods to compete for the same resources.

There is no loser if people recognize their own life meanings. They come to know that there is no universal standard to judge people’s capabilities, and everyone experiences gain and loss in their own life, based on their own understandings of life purposes. For example, if one believes that art is the way to approach life purposes, then low grades in Gaokao shouldn’t determine him/her as a loser in life.

I do not imply that people should all be different and reject any common standards. Indeed, people may share similar values, and people within a certain culture may have similar understandings of life purposes. My point is that it is dangerous if one blindly takes others’ values as themselves because the shared purposes may not be truly meaningful enough to them. If one is aware of inner needs and values and consciously agrees with culturally shared understanding of life purposes, it would be great. In short, as Newport (2010) argues, we need to figure out what we really value and care about, no matter how different from or similar to others.

A Short Response to Potential Objections

Of course I will not go too further to argue that we will automatically be happy if we find the work which aligns with our pursuit of life purposes and vise versa. Also, I will not presume that all we do is to think about the meanings without dealing with practical problems.

Sometimes we are not sure about our life purposes and have no idea how to achieve it. And sometimes we have to do some tedious work before getting to working on meaningful things. Even if working with purposes, we may still feel depressed due to difficulties we meet.

If for now, the purposes of work can not align with our life meanings, we can learn to develop a passion for the current work and practice mindfulness to recognize how the work contributes to the happiness and peace in our lives (Rand, 1961; Nhat Hahn, 2012).

Ethical work: work with purposes - work to live

Now it is time we go back to the original questions: What is working for? What is not working for? My argument is that both working and not working are approaches to achieve the purposes of life.

With the life purposes as the ultimate goal, we can reject alienation, which is to be being defined as sets of working skills and losing connection to humanities, and being truck in involution, namely blindly taking others’ definitions of meanings as ours and thus being forced to strive for beating competitors endlessly.

In sum, we do not want to work to survive or live to work—we work to live. We can work, but we are not only workers. “A man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all” (Emerson, 183).


Asher Horowitz. 2010. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. Retrieved from

Marx, K., & Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895, editor. (2018;2017;). The communist manifesto. First Avenue Editions, a division of Lerner Publishing Group.

Yuval Noah Harari. 2017. The purposes of life in a world without work. Retrieved from

Qianni, Wang, & Shifan, Ge. 2020. How One Obscure Word Captures Urban China’s Unhappiness.

Cal Newport. 2010. Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do. Retrieved from

Nhat Hahn, Thich. 2012. Mindfulness at Work.

Jinping, Xi. 2013. Hard Work Makes Dreams Come True.

Rand, A. 1961. For the new intellectual: The philosophy of ayn rand. Random House.

McNeff, D. J. 2021. The work-life balance myth: Rethinking your optimal balance for success. McGraw Hill.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1837. An Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge.