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On Tax Day, More of Us Need to Think About Why We Work

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Tax Day, April 15, is a day all of us either dread or like, but another way of looking at it is April 19 is Tax Freedom Day. That is roughly the time of year by which an employee will have made the amount of money he or she will pay in taxes. Everything else earned after that day is the amount the worker gets to keep.

It’s an important juncture that should make more of us think about why we work. Obviously, a big part of the reason people work is to ensure that they have the money to take care of their needs and their obligations to family and others.

But, over the course of a career, the average American worker is likely to spend more than 75,000 hours working. That’s a hefty chunk of time. According to the Pew Research Center, about 1 in 3 Americans do their jobs just to get by, and only about half of Americans are highly satisfied with their work.

More of us need to ask ourselves whether the work we are doing is fulfilling. But to do that, each of us needs to know our own values. This matters, because happy workers are more productive than unhappy ones, and doing work that meshes with core values is one key facet of people’s satisfaction with their jobs.

The social psychologist Shalom Schwartz and his colleagues have identified a universal set of values held by people from cultures across the world. Cultures differ in the values they promote. People get some of their value system from those taught by the cultures to which they belong, but they also react to these lessons as individuals and may differ in some ways from the people around them.

The values Schwartz identifies are power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition and security. Tradition is a respect for customs. Achievement is a focus on personal success. Hedonism values pleasure and enjoyment. Benevolence prizes a desire to help others.

Most of us subscribe to a few different values, though some tend to hold values that are similar to other values. For example, hedonism and achievement are both fairly similar, because they focus on the individual. Benevolence is a desire to help other people. It is hard to focus strongly on individual achievement and still prize helping others, because the more you care about yourself, the harder it is to be focused on others as well.

People are the happiest when their jobs align with their values. For example, someone I know took a job after college that he believed would enhance his reputation and bring him success and wealth.

After several months on the job, he found that he was not happy focusing on personal achievement. He left his job and joined the Peace Corps, where he got to express his value for benevolence. After returning to the United States, he took jobs that enabled him to continue to help other people succeed. And he says he has not regretted that decision.

Values may also shift over time. Early in our careers, we might care more about achievement and the trappings of success. Later, we might want to give back to the people around us and to help others succeed. As a result, we might choose to refocus our work to fit with those changes.

Matching a job to values goes beyond tax freedom. It requires that we have the freedom to exert some agency over our work. It may feel like life circumstances have completely constrained options, and it can be risky to hold out for a job that fits what we value when we have responsibilities for the welfare of others. But, people should always be on the lookout for opportunities to let our work life reflect the things we hold dear.

Most importantly, more of us ought to spend some time reflecting on which values are central to our identities. If you can express those at work, then you will feel free, even on those days when your money is still headed to government coffers.

Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing and the director of the IC2 Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books including “Bring Your Brain to Work,” which will be published in June.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman, Waco Tribune Herald, Corpus Christi Caller Times, and the San Angelo Times.

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