Saturday, March 04, 2006

something to think about (hard work & contentment)

If you read the IMF book forum transcript which I noted the other day, you will know that one of the commenters, Sebastian Mallaby, brought up the happiness principal of Professor Lord Layard who discusses the well known paradox that people want more income, yet richer people do not report themselves to be happier than they were before. Mallaby summarizes Professor Layard's conclusion from this: increased incomes generally result from hard work and happiness does not come with hard work. To the contrary, happiness is the freedom from hard work. Here's the explanation in Mallaby's words:
Why? Because if I work hard, then my neighbor has to work hard too, in order to keep up, and if he falls behind, he will feel unhappy. So my working hard has this norm-creating effect of forcing everybody else to work hard, so that we arrive at a terrible equilibrium where we're all working too hard and we're all stressed out. If we could only just, you know, calm down and all cut our working hours we'd all be happier. [The audience laughed at this.]
Mallaby uses this argument as a critique of the book under discussion, but that's not the focus of this post.

It just happens there's a review article in last week's New Yorker called PURSUING HAPPINESS. One of it's conclusions is that far from being antagonistic to happiness, hard work is happiness.

A few extracts:
Two scholars explore the fragility of contentment.
The New Yorker
Issue of 2006-02-27
Posted 2006-02-20

“Bad is stronger than good” is an important principle of design by evolution. This is one of the reasons that human beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize.

Most humans have had little control over their fate; a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat, let alone a major emergency such as having a baby—all were, for most of our ancestors, potentially lethal.

When your attention is fully concentrated on questions of survival, you don’t have the time or the inclination even to formulate the idea of happiness. You have to begin to feel that you have some control over your circumstances before you begin to ask yourself questions about your own state of mind. Socrates made the question of happiness one of full accord between an individual and the good: to be happy was to lead a good life, one in keeping with higher patterns of being. [During the Middle Ages scholars promoted] the alignment of individual conduct and the heavenly order. The Enlightenment “translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved?’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’

[It's obvious today that] instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a “hedonic treadmill”: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

A co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, made people carry a pager, and told them that every time it went off they should write down what they were doing and how much they were enjoying it. The idea was to avoid the memory’s tendency to focus on peaks and troughs, and to capture the texture of people’s lives as they were experiencing them, rather than in retrospect. The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow” — in Haidt’s definition, “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is, to borrow a phrase of Clive James’s, as “a by-product of absorption.”

No comments: