Thursday, January 22, 2009

Happiness and the Joneses..

I know we've all heard many times about how "happiness" to many Americans -- and many others -- means keeping up with the proverbial Joneses -- the neighbors with the nicer lawn, the bigger garage, the finer-resolution television, etc.

This has actually been borne out in study after study. What makes people happy, materially at least, is not what they have in some absolute sense but what they have relative to those around them. So to quickly and glibly summarize a lot of that research, you'd be happier if I gave you $10,000 and nothing to your neighbors than you would if I gave you $20,000 but also gave that same sum to everyone on your block [As crazy as that sounds, poke around a bit and see how many times that type of thing has been replicated].

It makes no sense, I know, but as author Dan Ariely has pointed out time and again in a book (and blog) by this name, we're all Predictably Irrational.

It shouldn't be that strange, then, that I sometimes catch myself being, well, quite irrational about how I correlate my happiness and the length of my workday. To wit: What bothers me about spending 12-16 hour-days stacked end-on-end is not necessarily the fact in and of itself, but the fact that it happens while I'm surrounded by so many people with so very little on their plate.

See my point? If I were working on group projects that really meant weeks full of 16-hour days, it might not be so bad. In fact, given the right creative environment, it might even be a lot of fun -- just ask anyone who has put in the long pay (often for low wages) at a start-up, a publication, or any other creative enterprise. There's a sense of purpose and camaraderie you get when you're bouncing ideas off of other creative minds and *suffering* through something together.

But when you get the sense that you're constantly busting your tail amidst a sea (or a shore!) of people whose biggest daily conundrum is whether to get Chinese food or Subway at lunchtime, it can start to grate. Now, don't get me wrong -- I realize this is totally irrational, because my happiness shouldn't really be affected by what anyone else does (assuming it bears no direct impact on me). Whether everyone else in the building jumped into their cars at 3 p.m., 4 p.m. or 7 p.m. shouldn't *really* affect me one way or the other.

But, I must confess, sometimes it does. There are many aspects of my job that I like, and even some that I would say I love, but working on a somewhat disjointed staff that's partly manned by others' "extras" has its drawbacks -- much like anything else.

So what's the lesson to learn here? Whining about it on my blog might be somewhat therapeutic, but it doesn't really fix the problem.

I think the answer is that when you recognize things about yourself -- what makes you happy, what gets you down, etc. -- you need to find ways to control your environment in your favor when possible rather than trying to *fix* the way you feel. For me, that just means making sure I find the right job where I can work in a small team, fill some sort of niche, add value, and be recognized for it.

In other words, not too large, not too bureacratic, and not an easy spot for the lazy to "hide."

That sounds about right.


C R Krieger said...

I think that is about right and thinking back to when I was an Air Force "crew dog," it was palpable that those of us spending the long hours flying and pulling alert and doing additional duties around the squadron resented those in the (Non)Combat (Non)Support Group, those eight to five folks doing the daily administrative work of the Wing.

On the other hand, we were the more boisterous, and the happier, in that we WERE the aviators and enjoyed it no end. We were the ones who flew off to Route Pack 1 to drop bombs or Route Pack 6 to chase MiG-21s and the next year, flew down to Libya to practice dropping bombs. We were the ones who bent the aircraft around the sky chasing each other. We were the ones who took the weekend cross-countries to England, so we could catch a show in London.

But, the basic point is that if you feel someone else isn't pulling their fair share of the load, you resent that a bit. One month "Boom-Boom" Smith did a survey of the fighter squadrons at Bitburg AB and, based on the results, a number of us agreed that those who were away from home an average of only 80 hours a week weren't pulling their fair share of the load.

I fully understand.

Regards -- Cliff

The New Englander said...


It's funny, I ran into a Yeoman
1st-class(that's an admin support type guy) who used to work for fighter pilots...I'm sure he fell into that (Non)Combat(Non)Support side of the house, for which he'll merit no sympathy but this little bit of empathy (said with a nod to one of your new entries)..

the way he explained it to me, "Being a fighter pilot is such a major part of [those guys'] identities. It's who they are. They get up in the morning and they're excited to come to work. They're excited to tell people what they do. Me, I'm not excited about paperwork, Leave and Earnings Statements, travel orders, etc. It's not how I define myself..I define myself through my family and my music."

Now, don't get me wrong. I would never defend this guy for having a bad attitude and/or not taking his job seriously. BUT (and again, getting to that sympathy-empathy rift) if you put yourself in his shoes, it sort of makes sense in a way -- people dream about being pilots or SEALs, but no one dreams about being the window wiper or the guy handing out the the people who end up in those slots sometimes don't bring all the right motivation/enthusiasm to bear..