Emma Seppala, whose new book The Happiness Something Or Other came out this week, is doing an admirable job of hitting the airwaves to promote the book. (I mean that quite sincerely— having done the same for my last book, I know how much work this is, and how important it is to promote one’s book and brand.) She has a post on the Harvard Business Review blog talking about how even though most of us don’t work physically demanding jobs, “we are wiping ourselves out through psychological factors.”
As she points out, “the physical effort we exert in our day jobs does not warrant the fatigue we experience when we get home.” Most of us write things, talk to people, look at screens, go to meetings— so why can you spend a day doing this, then come home and feel exhausted? The answer, she says, is that too often we’re addicted to excitement, and the psychological and physiological charge that they bring. “Americans equate happiness with high intensity,” she says.
In one research study, for example, she found that
people wanted to feel high-intensity positive emotions like excitement when they were in a role that involved leading or trying to influence another person. This intensity is reflected in the language we use to discuss achievement goals: we get fired up, pumped, or amped up so that we can bowl people over, crush projects, or crank out presentations — these expressions all imply that we need to be in some kind of intense attack mode. Go get it, knock it out of the park, and muscle through.
The problem, however, is that high-intensity emotions are physiologically taxing….
High-intensity emotions are also mentally taxing. It’s hard to focus when we’re physiologically aroused and overstimulated.
So our desire to feel excitement (or passion?) at work, to have the frisson of deadlines or the feeling of being at the center of the storm, of being at 4th and 2, or simply being too indispensable to be replaced by a robot, is draining us.
Other writers have noticed this too. As The Economist said in December 2015, “Everybody, everywhere seems to be busy. In the corporate world, a ‘perennial time-scarcity problem’ afflicts executives all over the globe, and the matter has only grown more acute in recent years, say analysts at McKinsey, a consultancy firm”.
So why is that?
Because knowledge workers have few metrics for output, the time people spend at their desks is often seen as a sign of productivity and loyalty. So the stooge who is in his office first thing in the morning and last at night is now consistently rewarded with raises and promotions, or saved from budget cuts.
if leisureliness was once a badge of honour among the well-off of the 19th century, in the words of Thorsten Veblen, an American economist at the time, then busyness—and even stressful feelings of time scarcity—has become that badge now. To be pressed for time has become a sign of prosperity, an indicator of social status, and one that most people are inclined to claim.
It seems to me that the first claim is exactly right: that in the absence of more objective external measures of productivity— the number of bales of cotton picked, rows plowed, widgets assembled, etc.— we’ve fallen back on busyness and affect as proxies for real measurement. Unfortunately, this dovetails nicely with our tendency to confuse emotions with actual accomplishment.
But is it the case that our ancestors had more leisurely, less harried, days at the office? I’m not so sure, despite my love of Veblen.
The thing is, as I was writing REST, one of the things that struck me was how many sources from a century ago— before World War I— talked about the dangers of overwork, how Americans were running themselves ragged, and no one felt like they had any time. For example, here’s William James, in The Gospel of Relaxation:
We say that so many of our fellow-countrymen collapse, and have to be sent abroad to rest their nerves, because they work so hard. I suspect that this is an immense mistake. I suspect that neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns, but that their cause lies rather in those absurd feelings of hurry and having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results, that lack of inner harmony and ease, in short, by which with us the work is so apt to be accompanied, and from which a European who should do the same work would nine times out of ten be free. These perfectly wanton and unnecessary tricks of inner attitude and outer mariner in us, caught from the social atmosphere, kept up by tradition, and idealized by many as the admirable way of life, are the last straws that break the American camel’s back, the final overflowers of our measure of wear and tear and fatigue.
The voice, for example, in a surprisingly large number of us has a tired and plaintive sound. Some of us are really tired (for I do not mean absolutely to deny that our climate has a tiring quality); but far more of us are not tired at all, or would not be tired at all unless we had got into a wretched trick of feeling tired, by following the prevalent habits of vocalization and expression. And if talking high and tired, and living excitedly and hurriedly, would only enable us to do more by the way, even while breaking us down in the end, it would be different. There would be some compensation, some excuse, for going on so. But the exact reverse is the case. It is your relaxed and easy worker, who is in no hurry, and quite thoughtless most of the while of consequences, who is your efficient worker; and tension and anxiety, and present and future, all mixed up together in our mind at once, are the surest drags upon steady progress and hindrances to our success.
That strikes me as a description that would still apply today: a working day in which me exhaust ourselves from “tension and anxiety” and “absurd feelings of worry and having no time.”
Or consider a more popular source: Bertie Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, talking about the importance recreation in his 1918 book, Keys to Success: Personal Efficiency (New York: B. C. Forbes, 1918):
The purpose of recreation is to re-create our energies, our physical strength or our mental powers, our zest for work.
“The man who works fifty-two weeks in the year does not do his best in any one week of the year,” Daniel Guggenheim, head of the greatest smelting and mining family in the world impressed upon me. “Some people think I was a slave to work all my business life. The trouble is,” said John D. Rockefeller, with a twinkle, “I was a bit of what would now be called a ‘slacker’ after I reached the middle thirties. I used to spend every summer at my country home near Cleveland and just kept in touch with business by a private telegraph wire. I am a believer in recreation.” Andrew Carnegie, after he began to win his spurs, was a notorious truant from work. Hardly any of his time was spent in or around steel mills. He lived a well-diversified life in New York, with frequent trips to Europe, interspersed with journeys to the Orient and other distant places. The newspapers recently have chronicled the amazing activities of Coleman du Pont, who thinks nothing of buying a Waldorf-Astoria before breakfast, securing control of an industrial plant by lunch time, and becoming a dominating factor in a financial organization before nightfall. Yet no man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than this human dynamo.
What’s notable here is that Forbes is explicitly contrasting a prevailing assumption that successful people must work heroic hours with his insider knowledge of their real lives.
Here’s what I take away:
- The problem of work expanding to fill all available time is nothing new. It seems to naturally happen when work becomes unmoored from natural schedules (tides, the rising and setting of the sun, the seasons, etc.), and when you live in a culture that encourages ambition and acquisition.
- Americans— at least the ones engaged in professional, service, and entrepreneurial jobs— have long equated happiness with intensity, and we’ve never had enough time for leisure.
- This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do about the problem of busyness and overwork. What it does mean is that the problem won’t solve itself, and it won’t be solved by nuking you inbox, or crushing your to-do list, or whatever.
- We’ve always had to take the time— seize it from overpacked schedules, from our own sense that we should be working, from a culture that rewards busyness, from working lives that aren’t bound by the sun or calendar and will expand to fill all 168 hours of the week if we’ll let them. But we can take the time.
- It may seem paradoxical, but recreation requires some commitment, some self-discipline, and even some skill. But like many skills, it pays off in the long run.
And Emma’s book is The Happiness Track.