Why Are People Miserable at Work?

Small talk has never been my thing.

When you meet someone new I’d estimate 90% of conversations begin with the following question: “So what do you do?”

Very few people care about the answer but this has turned into a cultural norm in recent decades. Work is ingrained in our identities in many ways.

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic wrote a monster piece this week about how workism is the new religion for many:

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.

But our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office.

The problem is even some of those people who have “made it” are miserable. Charles Duhigg recounted his recent 15 year anniversary for Harvard Business School and was surprised by how many of his former classmates are successful, wealthy, but utterly miserable because their jobs leave them unfulfilled:

“I’m jealous of everyone who had the balls to do something that made them happy,” my $1.2 million friend told me.

“I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he told me. “When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.” He recognized the incredible privilege of his pay and status, but his anguish seemed genuine. “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says,” he told me. There’s no magic salary at which a bad job becomes good. He had received an offer at a start-up, and he would have loved to take it, but it paid half as much, and he felt locked into a lifestyle that made this pay cut impossible. “My wife laughed when I told her about it,” he said.

I know what you’re thinking: Boohoo, those poor souls who went to Harvard and make a ton of money are unsatisfied with their work.

There are countless other people who deserve sympathy well before this group. But you could make the argument Thompson’s workism has affected plenty of workers beyond the wealthy class.

For years young people have been advised to “follow your passion.” When that advice proved fruitless (and for the majority of people it truly is), people began to benchmark themselves against others.

Everything becomes a game of relativity.

Researchers asked almost 300 subjects how they felt  about different relative and absolute levels of income as follows:

A: Your current yearly income is $50,000 while everyone else earns $25,000.

B: Your current yearly income is $100,000 while everyone else earns $200,000.

(Prices are what they are currently and prices (therefore the purchasing power of money) are the same in states A and B.)

Around 50% of respondents preferred Option A, the lower absolute income, so long as their relative income was higher than those around them. This study was conducted in 1995. Since then the ability to compare yourself with others has exploded.

Social media is constantly shoving accolades, promotions, vacations, 30 under 30 lists, and the fake Internet lives of Instagram “celebrities” down your throat. In the past, we compared ourselves to our peers, co-workers, family, friends, and members of our communities. There were always standouts among these communities but the Internet has made everyone is a small fish in a big pond.

Now we can compare ourselves to every humblebragger from around the globe and it’s making many of us miserable because everyone’s life is perfect on the Internet and our real life is flawed. This is a game you’ll never win because the other side is always cheating.

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Once you know someone you don’t have to ask what they do for a living anymore so a simple, ‘How’s it going?’ will suffice. Increasingly, the answer to this question is, “I am SO busy.”

People wear busy like a badge of honor these days.

Most of the people I know who claim to be busy aren’t really pressed for time, they’re simply terrible with time management.

Jay Leno was recently bemoaning the fact that so many rich people he knows complain about being exhausted all the time. His joke was:

You know if a coal miner says to his boss, “I’m exhausted” the boss goes, “Get back to work!”

He followed up by saying, “Exhaustion is a rich man’s disease.” People outside the wealthy class don’t get the option of being exhausted.

I get it. I can fall prey to the busy trap too. But it becomes a crutch for people who confuse urgent with important.

Technology is amazing but it also provides an outlet for distraction that’s unparalleled in human history. Despite technology making our lives easier and more efficient, it’s likely making us more unproductive as well.

A RescueTime study of 185 million working hours found workers average just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive device time per day. Their research also found:

  • 21% of working hours are spent on entertainment, news, and social media (this seems low to me)
  • 40% of people use their computers after 10 PM (hand up on this one)
  • 26% of work is done outside of normal working hours
  • Workers average at least 1 hour of work outside of working hours on 89 days/year (and on ~50% of all weekend days)
  • We check email, on average, every 6 minutes

One of the crazier aspects of this whole workism/busy trend is the fact that most people don’t even like their jobs. Since 2000, Gallup has conducted a poll to find out how many workers are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

The latest reading is the highest it’s ever been, but it’s still only 34%:

That’s larger than the 13% who are actively disengaged but that leaves 53% who are not engaged in the workplace. This last group is described as follow:

They may be generally satisfied but are not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace; they will usually show up to work and do the minimum required but will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer.

So roughly two-thirds of workers surveyed here are not exactly thrilled with their work or workplace and that number has been relatively steady for some time now.

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The Kung! was one of the last groups on earth to live as our ancestors did 10,000 years ago as a hunter-gatherer tribe in the Kalahari Desert. Researchers began studying this group in the 1960s to figure out how life compared to the modern world. Although they lived in a harsh environment they adapted to their surroundings. In fact, when the inevitable drought would come, nearby farmers would join them because hunting and gathering became a more reliable source of food and nutrition.

To survive, these people needed to work just 12 hours or so in the average week.

In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and BelongingSebastian Junger details stories of European settlers who came to America but were captured by Native American tribes. People at the time were perplexed to discover those captives actually preferred the Indian society to their own. There were also people who were voluntarily leaving modern settlements to join the Native Americans. Yet they could find no examples of the opposite occurring. Native Americans never left their tribes to join the new settlers.

Junger discussed why this is the case through the lens of trade-offs:

The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing. On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world. But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.

The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses—and certainly isn’t the American ideal—but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.

Yuval Harari discussed a similar idea in Sapiens. He compared a medieval French peasant with a modern Parisian banker. The peasant would have lived an uncomfortable life in poverty while the banker has every one of life’s material comforts. But that doesn’t necessarily make the banker happier with their life than the peasant:

Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses, and the Champs-Elysées don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great-grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.

I’m not sure the banker would trade places with the medieval peasant but research has shown anticipation of a reward is more powerful on brain activity than actually receiving that reward. So even when we get exactly what we want in terms of our career, it may not make us any happier because we just need another dopamine hit to bring back that feeling of anticipation.

Junger detailed a study from the George Washington Law Review which surveyed more than 6,000 lawyers. They found billable hours or making partner had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being. In fact, it was the much lower status public defenders, not the fancy corporate lawyers, who seemed to lead much happier lives.

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For the book 30 Lessons For Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest AmericansProfessor Karl Pillemer interviewed thousands of people over the age of 65 to figure out what lessons they had for those coming up after them. The most glaring detail from the book was not necessarily the wisdom these folks imparted, but rather the things they didn’t say:

No one – not a single person out of a thousand – said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

No one – not a single person – said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success.

No one – not a single person – said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

Now it may sound absurdly obvious worded this way. But this is in fact how many people operate on a day-to-day basis. The experts did not say these things; indeed almost no one said anything remotely like them. Instead they consistently urged finding a way of earning enough to live on without condemning yourself to a job you dislike.

This is a double-edged sword because there’s a fine line between contentment and complacency. One of the reasons we’ve experienced such progress and innovation as a species is because people are constantly striving to improve their lot in life. If some people didn’t take their work seriously we wouldn’t share in the comforts of modern life.

I’m not saying work shouldn’t play a big role in your life. Most people want to perform meaningful work that makes them feel like they are contributing to society. There’s nothing wrong with loving your career and taking pride in your work.

I love my job. It’s a huge part of who I am as a person. But it could never be everything to me because that would be an incomplete life. Work can definitely make you happier but I don’t think it can make you whole.

Thompson reminded us in his piece that the forgotten goal of working is “about buying free time.”

I hate the phrase work-life balance because that balance probably doesn’t exist for most people. As Junger points out, almost everything in life comes down to trade-offs.

But if you don’t have something outside the office to balance out your life, no amount of money or career accomplishments are going to make you happy.

Further Reading:
Accidental Career Guidance

 
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