Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book Review: Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrow of Work

Sima Barmania
London, United Kingdom


Published by Penguin Books, 2009
ISBN: 9780241143537

What do you suppose biscuit manufacturing and the healthcare profession have in common? Well, according to Alain de Botton they both attain a sense of meaning by increasing pleasure or decreasing the suffering of another human being, a necessary prerequisite for a “meaningful” occupation.

Societies in the past have sought out work solely as a means of providing physical sustenance. This still holds true, but now there lies an added expectation that work should also furnish us with an emotional fulfillment. In this book de Botton questions this claim, what he terms as the “bourgeois assurance that alongside love, work should make us happy.”

Through anecdotes of a modern workplace, de Botton embarks on a curious journey that leads him to examine the daily activities of ten varied and eclectic professions, ranging from biscuit manufacturing to aviation and painting to career counseling. By following the trajectory of a single tuna fish from the Indian Ocean to a supermarket shelf in England, he forces us to question our own consumerism. By paying homage to a decaying plane graveyard in the Mojave Desert, he asks us to question our own immortality in a way we would not have done otherwise.

De Botton quotes the economist Vilfred Pareto who proposed that as societies increase in wealth, there is a division of labor. Specialization in industry leads to “death of the generalist” but perhaps also to the loss of job satisfaction. This is equally applicable to biscuit manufacturing as it is to modern medicine.

De Botton’s theoretical underpinnings of the Max Weber society, with its insatiable pursuit of efficiency, dare to question the psychological advantages. Sub-specialization, despite its obvious advantages, runs the risk of stifling human creativity and individuality, removing room to learn and acquire new skills.

He taps into our intuitive experience of reality, an everyday philosophy that is not merely confined to the realms of erudite academics but is as it should do, to examine and to question the obvious.

Part of a meritocratic society, in addition to being egalitarian, is that as opposed to divine right, nepotism, or sovereignty, we are wholly responsible for our own success or failure which is ever more daunting and slightly crippling. In essence, de Botton has perfected the art of eliciting nuances of our inner most anxiety and has condensed hours of lamenting and conversation into a succinct yet witty sentence:

“Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line”



SIMA BARMANIA, BMedsci, MBBS, MPH, is a medical doctor from London with an intercalated degree in community health science and a Master’s in Public Health from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has branched out of clinical medicine to focus on her passion for global health and is due to undertake a PhD early next year.


Winter 2011   |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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