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What Makes Us Feel Good About Work

What makes us feel good about our work? | Dan Ariely

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience.


What motivates us to work? It isn’t just money, or  joy either. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely presents revealing experiments about unexpected attitudes toward meaning in our work in this Ted X talk.

“I want to talk a little bit today about labor and work.” Dan Ariely tells his Ted X audience.

“When we think about how people work, the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze — that all people care about is money, and the moment we give them money, we can direct them to work one way, we can direct them to work another way.” Ariely says.


He asserts “This is why we give bonuses to bankers and pay in all kinds of ways. And we really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work, and what the labor market looks like. At the same time, if you think about it, there’s all kinds of strange behaviors in the world around us. Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing. If you read books of people who climb mountains, difficult mountains, do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness?”

“No, they are full of misery. In fact, it’s all about frostbite and having difficulty walking, and difficulty breathing –cold, challenging circumstances. And if people were just trying to be happy, the moment they would get to the top, they would say, “This was a terrible mistake. I’ll never do it again.” Ariely explains.

“Instead, let me sit on a beach somewhere drinking mojitos.” But instead, people go down, and after they recover, they go up again. And if you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kinds of things.

  • It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak.
  • It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge.
  • It suggests that there’s all kinds of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways.”


Ariely says that for him personally, he started thinking about this after a student came to visit him. “This was one of my students from a few years earlier, and he came one day back to campus. And he told me the following story: He said that for more than two weeks, he was working on a PowerPoint presentation. He was working in a big bank and this was in preparation for a merger and acquisition. And he was working very hard on this presentation — graphs, tables, information. He stayed late at night every day. And the day before it was due, he sent his PowerPoint presentation to his boss, and his boss wrote him back and said, “Nice presentation, but the merger is cancelled.” And the guy was deeply depressed. Now at the moment when he was working, he was actually quite happy. Every night he was enjoying his work, he was staying late, he was perfecting this PowerPoint presentation. But knowing that nobody would ever watch it made him quite depressed.”

In another scenario Dan Ariely talks about an old story about cake mixes. He says that “When they started cake mixes in the ’40s, they would take this powder and they would put it in a box, and they would ask housewives to basically pour it in, stir some water in it, mix it, put it in the oven, and — voila — you had cake.”


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“But it turns out they were very unpopular. People did not want them, and they thought about all kinds of reasons for that. Maybe the taste was not good? No, the taste was great. What they figured out was that there was not enough effort involved”, Ariely tells his audience.

Ariely further explains, “It was so easy that nobody could serve cake to their guests and say, “Here is my cake.” No, it was somebody else’s cake, as if you bought it in the store. It didn’t really feel like your own. So what did they do? They took the eggs and the milk out of the powder. Now you had to break the eggs and add them, you had to measure the milk and add it, mixing it. Now it was your cake. Now everything was fine.”

Ariely later goes on to say, “If you think about Adam Smith versus Karl Marx, Adam Smith had a very important notion of efficiency. He gave an example of a pin factory. He said pins have 12 different steps, and if one person does all 12 steps, production is very low. But if you get one person to do step one, and one person to do step two and step three and so on, production can increase tremendously.”


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Ariely says  this is a great example, and the reason for the Industrial Revolution and efficiency. “Karl Marx, on the other hand, said that the alienation of labor is incredibly important in how people think about the connection to what they are doing. And if you do all 12 steps, you care about the pin. But if you do one step every time, maybe you don’t care as much.”

“I think that in the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith was more correct than Karl Marx. But the reality is that we’ve switched, and now we’re in the knowledge economy.  You can ask yourself, what happens in a knowledge economy?” Ariely says.

“Is efficiency still more important than meaning?” Ariely asks.  “I think the answer is no. I think that as we move to situations in which people have to decide on their own about how much effort, attention, caring, how connected they feel to it. Are they thinking about labor on the way to work, and in the shower and so on, all of a sudden Marx has more things to say to us.”

Ariely wraps up his Ted X talk saying, “When we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it — meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc. The good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them — how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace, and for the employees –I think we could get people to be both more productive and happier.”


Dan Ariely is professor of Psychology and Behavior Economics at Duke University.  He is the author of the New York Times Best Sellers, “Predictably Irrational”  and “The Upside Of Irrationality.”


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