The Meaning of Activity


The discipline of industrial and organizational psychology, and psychology in general, figures prominently in Sunflower’s Money: critical discussions: Psychology looks at motivations and interactions, and industrial psychology looks specifically at the activity of work.     

Whoever talks about money is talking about performance, about paid or unpaid performance—in any case about a return equivalent to what I have contributed.

In the next few minutes, I’ll try to describe what activity means as a broad category, covering what we call our jobs, housework and hobbies. 



Purpose of Activity

Theo Wehner talks about "The Human Condition" by Hannah Arendt.

About "The Human Condition" by Hannah Arendt

To begin, I refer to a book that I read as a student, The Human Condition, by Hannah Arendt. Arendt describes three forms of human activity. She asked the question: What are we doing, concretely, when we are “busy?” She saw “work” as what we do to provide the necessities of everyday life. This accounts for much of our activity. In ancient Greece such tasks were performed by slaves, not by citizens. Today, thankfully, we do them ourselves.

The second category of activity is "production," creating an artificial world resistant to biological decay. You could also call this category "manufacturing.”

The third category of activity is the most worthy one for Arendt: action. Through deeds we move beyond the merely necessary and useful and create something of lasting value for ourselves and for others. 

Cultural historians have often reformulated these three modes of activity. “Life is a system of seamlessly merged activities,” according to Leontiev. And as cultural historians we examine the interactions between subject, its object and its environment. We don’t just consider the subject, nor do we just focus on the object, the product, in isolation; rather, we look at the entire scope of an activity.

This reflects the conviction of cultural historians and many contemporary psychological theories that what we create through our activities is more than just a product. Both how something is manufactured and under what kind of working conditions have a profound effect on us, ultimately forming our personalities, our identities. 

That’s the basic concept of activity theory, which looks at three major aspects of our actions. First, we consider the activity itself. There are motivations that drive me to be a scientist; for example, to acquire knowledge. However, the motivation behind an activity may be unknown to the individual and it may take subtle analysis to identify the real motivation of a doctor or a judge, for example. These drivers are not always accessible. 

Hannah Arendt describes three forms of human activity: work, production and action

The second aspect is the deed, the pursuit of objectives. As a scientist, say, I want to write a book or prepare a lecture: what actions are necessary to achieve my objectives with the book or the lecture? And then comes the third aspect of activity, the operational side of things. Performing the necessary steps – one by one – to reach my objectives: first research, then writing, then revising and correcting, etc. 

Those are the three aspects of activity considered by an industrial psychologist and they can be applied to any form of endeavor—a job, a hobby, charitable works—to determine someone’s motivation for their paid work, their free-time activities or volunteer engagements.   


Many employees fail to find any real meaning in their jobs today

After more than twelve years of research – focusing on paid employment but also looking closely at charitable workers as well – industrial psychologists found that:

Many employees fail to find any real meaning in their jobs today, meaning being a highly subjective subject in any case. Meaning doesn’t reside in the activity itself; rather, we are the ones who assign meaning to our activities, or not. And even if we are unable to do that, the effort itself is a form creating meaning. 

We have often observed that lack of meaning in today’s working world and also heard it in the many interviews we conducted. Hobbies, however, are quite another story. That’s when we do something purely for our pleasure. An end product is not the point; rather, it’s the enjoyment we get from performing activity itself that counts most. And we also find that charitable work imparts a lot of meaning to the volunteers who work for free.

As industrial and organizational psychologists, it is vital that we look at unpaid labor. We urgently need to understand how we can change paid work so that it generates a much stronger sense meaning for those who do it.


«Meaning doesn’t reside in the activity itself; rather, we are the ones who assign meaning to our activities, or not.»

Prof. Dr. Theo Wehner
Signet Sunflower Foundation