What is the opposite of work

I recently asked a seemingly simple question here on the blog:

What is the opposite of work?

A week later there were 30 creative, insightful comments on that simple question and there are some interesting trends you can notice in them.

But first this: I had an ulterior motive for asking this question, and it was of course to get at a usable definition of work, as Martin Mouritzen guessed in the 2nd comment:

I guess that really depends on how you describe “work”. I love my work, so for me work is not work at all, and I can find myself working in the evening for relaxation.
But: The work I do for relaxation is always something which does not have a deadline, which does not have any set expectations and something which can challenge me.

So I guess for me the opposite of work is simply “stuff I do to relax”.

Many other comments echoed this. Rowan Manahan wrote:

My evolving definition of work is “Stuff you HAVE to do, whether you want to or not, because you are not independently wealthy.”

By that definition, anyone who LOVES their job doesn’t work. It may take a lot of their time and make demands on their energy and availability for other things, but if they wholeheartedly LOVE it, it isn’t work per se.

Robbert took a dictionary approach:

Wordnet defines work as “exert oneself by doing mental or physical work for a purpose or out of necessity”.

As such the opposite of work can be several things:
– Excerting yourself for no purpose or necesity (Sport or hobbies)
– Not exerting yourself for a purpose (Sleep or recovery from illness)
– Not exerting yourself for no purpose (Lazing about, procrastination)

Present in these definitions is that work is what you HAVE to do, which fits in well with the traditional, industrial-age-definition of work. It’s what I do for pay and i do it because I need money to survive.

The problem with this definition is of course that many of us love our jobs and would do what we do even if we didn’t have to.

Ioana took another approach:

I prefer the sociological distinction myself: the opposite of work is leisure. Rest would be the opposite of activity and I don’t think the concept of work can be reduced to activity. I believe the productive aspect is the essential one. Work is productive activity. It usually involves some sort of compulsion, but it might be more appropriate to speak of necessity. In a paid job there is compulsion indeed, but not for other types of work, such as housekeeping (for one’s house) and child rearing, which are done simply because they’re necessary.

This approach emphasizes production – work is that which produces results.

Chris Stapper echoed this:

I want to believe that work is something like ‘creating value’.

And so did Ken Ferry:

Work is what I do to accomplish something.

There were also some silly approaches, like this:

The opposite of ‘work’ is ‘krow’.

Thanks, Luc.

And though Noel Coward did not actually comment on the original post, I still thought of this quote of his:

Work is much more fun than fun.

Rather than try to come up with the most correct definition of work, ie. one that would make sense in an economical, sociological and psychological perspective, I’d rather try to find a definition of work or rather a view of work, that promotes happiness at work in most normal kinds of work.

This immediately eliminates some definitions:

  • If work is simply that you do because you have to, then happiness at work is almost impossible by definition.
  • If work is only what you do for money, it eliminates all volunteer work.
  • If work is only what you do for a purpose, then all aspects of your job that are not productive are no longer work.

I’m not claiming to have the answer yet, but as I see it here are some elements of a definition if work that is conducive to happiness:

    1. Work is something you choose to do. You may not have a choice of whether or not to work but you have choice in what work you do.
    2. Work is something you’re valued for. Either someone pays you for your work or someone takes the time and resources to organize your work.
    3. Work is an activity where you make a positive difference for someone else.

      Does that make sense at all?

      19 thoughts on “What is the opposite of work”

      1. Yes. When I read through all the discussion/comments, I immediately thought of the Chris Rock show where he talked about the difference between a job and a career. To me, a job = work, whereas a career = doing something you love, giving back, challenging yourself, being part of the world, living out your talents to the fullest.

        Which would you rather do?

        Also, Alex, I’m sure you already saw this, but just in case, I saw it and thought of you! http://ow.ly/2B9Ic

      2. Guy Standing distinguishes work from labor. Labor is activity undertaken for a wage or salary, under someone else’s direction, primarily for the sake of the money. Work is productive activity undertaken primarily for the sake of the work. Standing argues for shifting a large portion of total production from the realm of labor to that of work, by increasing the amount of production undertaken through self-employment, in the informal sector, etc., instead of hired employment.

      3. Interesting. I completely disagree with the approach of reducing a concept to prove your point, yet I find points no. 2 and no. 3 of your definition essentially correct and certainly useful.
        No. 1 is an blunt over-generalization, but it reminds me of that American right called “the pursuit of happiness”. For a long time I didn’t understand why a private matter would be put in an official document as if it were the state’s business (that’s rather communist). Then I read somewhere it was about the right to choose one’s line of work, so people wouldn’t be forbidden access to a certain trade because of their social class or race.

      4. I think one definition of work is to do an activity (or activities) that benefits/adds value to/helps… you/others/animals/the environment…in return for monetary payment (paid work) or no monetary payment (volunteer work).

      5. If you don’t love your job, it is like leaving your heart home every morning. Let’s face it, we all have our ups and downs in the workplace. No matter how we love our job, there will times where we will the that point wherein we wish that we could have gotten another degree just so we could have ended up somewhere else. :) Find out If Your Current Job Crippling You

      6. Makes perfect sense. For most of us, work of some form is not a choice. We must work. However, the work we do and the attitude we do it with IS a choice. Even when the work we do may not be our favorite, the attitude we do it with is still a choice we make. Of course, others can influence our attitude — a boss who is appreciative, colleagues who notice our efforts — but it is still our choice of attitude

      7. Hi Alex,

        Thank you for summarizing. This article was very interesting as well. I am still thinking about the place happiness has on the workplace. And wheter or not we should differentiate between the two – like: see them as different sides of a single scale, or as two concepts that can exist both at the same time.

        I wrote a short article on your conclusions and while writing it, i was reminded of Hannah Arendt. She distinguishes three kinds of ‘work’: Labor, work and action. Each kind of work (or rather, each dimension of work) has it’s own virtues: respectively being able to sustain yourself, being in-the-world and being yourself.

        If you consider all three of these dimensions (i take them to be dimensions now, but i must admit i have not read everything she wrote yet), i think you will see space for happiness at least in the third dimension, but possibly in the second dimension as well. Maybe we will also see that ‘work’ simply as a means to exist appears to be a limited account of what work is.

        A great summary of Hannah Arendts work can be found on the website of Stanford University:

        All the best,


      8. I’m afraid that “work” is just as undefinable as “Dutch” or “politician”. We all know the concept, we have so called “mental models”, which are enough for our communication in most cases, but which are vague and can be contradictory, especially across cultures.

        When trying to define those strictly, you’ll find some blurryness in the concepts. You could try to get away with it by saying: here are 5 typical characteristics of… work, and when 3 or more are met, we usually think of it as being “work”.

        The idea that “work” is (or should be) conducive to happiness complicates the whole thing. Happiness is even less definable than work, imho.

        As the director of Workpatch, a Dutch start-up for matching demand and supply of work, I find the issue very important. Thanks for raising it!

      9. I think if you’re going to come up with a good definition, you have to be a bit Socratic about it. When someone asks you “what do you do [for work]”, your definition has to fit any reasonable answer.

        So… your definition definitely fits work that someone may enjoy. But does it also fit the work that’s drudging and undesirable?

        #1 breaks down in situations where people have very few–or no–options where to work (your parents pressure you into the family business, the only company in town that’d pay you enough to survive is a mining company, you don’t have the education, connections, or status to do anything but wash dishes, etc.). #2 is a bit more solid–it only breaks down slightly in situations where you’re underpaid or undervalued, but that’s a matter of not being valued properly, not of not being valued at all. #3 I think breaks down in a lot of situations–folks selling timeshares or doing telemarketing aren’t really making much of a positive difference, but work is still work.

        Perhaps instead of finding a definition that kind of forces happiness into the definition of work, find one that easily accommodates it while still being realistic enough to acknowledge that many people are (unfortunately) not very happy with their work.

        I don’t want to be entirely critical. This is a great start, and it’s a challenge to think of a definition that fits the above–I can’t think of the next step to take offhand myself. KF

      10. I truly believe that the most important thing is to start blending work and play. I think the master of life will seem like he’s playing while he’s working. Look at someone like Richard Branson. He just follows what’s the most fun!

        Great blog btw.

      11. I can tell from the above blog and comments that the term “work” can refer to many things. One of the initial misconceptions people have is that work must refer to performing an activity that is not enjoyable; however many people feel that work CAN be enjoyable if one has the right attitude and/or job; we can all agree that this is true on many occasions. Personally, I tend to agree with those who state that work refers to a productive activity that one HAS to do, no matter what. This definition surely must extend to work done outside an office building. If a mother needs to feed her baby, that is work. If a man needs to do chores around the house, that also constitutes work. Whether one is happy about doing work is up to their attitude and the tasks at hand, but should not be included as part of the definition of what work really is. That being said, one must now define what being “productive” really means. Does watching TV or going to the gym count as productive? Or should the definition of productivity be limited to activities that benefit others?

      12. I take Robbert’s comments a step further. I put it in the work setting, and I believe that to define what work not is, is to define work itself. Work is anything that I am doing, that is my duty, or contributes to my job position, that is active. Anything that is not towards these items is not work.
        Saying that the opposite of work is doing relaxing activities just puts a negative connotation on the word

      13. Oh- I live by the motto that if you love what you do- you never really work a day in your life. Life is too short to be miserable on a daily basis. I feel so fortunate to “work” with a lovely group of people that I enjoy being with all day & I would gladly spend my free time with them as well if I could.

      14. Work is doing what you have to do to make a living. When you are doing something you love or something you are passionate about and you happen to make money from it its not really work. It can be viewed as a hobby or just a fun way to spend you time. I look at it as another way of spending time. So many people “work” at their job and not enough of us “spend productive time.” Finding people that are willing to spend productive time and not do work will be a very difficult task. But if you do find someone like that you will notice a big difference in the quality of their “work.”

      15. Work is a broad word, inviting all of the above definitions. I suspect that the thread was started to invite discussion to confirm that happiness is available in work, just as it a choice to elimninate happiness from the equation.
        Alexander’s take is to incorporate happiness, which may alter the nature of being in action.
        I would like to throw in the word Job. Could be said to stand for ‘Just Over Broke’ when seen from the perspective of needs. Or a higher calling when seen from an exalted duty. It has slightly less choice than work, and slightly more reason to include happiness.

        If it was hard work meandering through the muddle of my words, I hope it was a job done in a happy way. In which case it becomes work at play.
        Pooh Bear may have said that.

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