Sunday, September 06, 2015

More is not always better

When I reconnected with old school mates after thirty years--many of them were "lifers" like me at that school--I got updated not only about them but also about some of those who were senior or junior to our batch. One, who went to a prized engineering college--IIT at Madras--apparently chose to go back to work at the same industrial township where we spent all our childhood.  He decided he was content with that and didn't want anything else that most of us chase after--working in exotic locations, earning fat paychecks, being at prestigious firms, ...

"I now think that I should perhaps have done what he did" lamented one, who made it clear that he was not leading a happy life but was stuck with it anyway.

Blogging about happiness and contentment is not anything new here.  I suppose I often return to this theme only because I think people do not think through this as they go through the process of college degrees and careers and incomes and travel and everything else.  Thus, unlike that school mate who opted to work at a place that was "beneath" the prestige of the university from where he had graduated, most people I interact with try to "rise up" to higher and higher levels.  As they continue with the rising, at some point, they realize that they are way past the stages when they were the happiest.
Why don’t people stop rising when they are happy?
Arthur Brooks raises that question in his NY Times column.
Because we are built to think that more is better — more power, authority, money and responsibility. So we incorrectly infer that promotions will equal greater satisfaction. In an economy that has left so many people behind in recent years, this might seem like a nice problem to have. But it is a problem nonetheless, as recent research clearly demonstrates.
My only quibble there is with how Brooks presents it: " we are built to think that more is better."  I am not sure whether we are built that way; I suspect that this is a modern phenomenon.  But, either way, we are incorrect to think that more is better.

So ... ?
Does this suggest quitting and joining the Peace Corps? Not necessarily. In the immortal words of the Bhagavad Gita, “The renunciation of work and work in devotion are both good for liberation. But, of the two, work in devotional service is better than renunciation of work.” In other words, even better than renouncing your exalted position is converting it into a source of personal liberation by devoting it to the good of others.
Earlier today, I was telling the friend that in my profession, I know I am doing two kinds of service--one to students, and another to taxpayers because I work at a public university.  Thus, I have always felt, believed, that my job is not about me nor is it about my atrociously unprofessional colleagues.  I believe that a clear understanding of my role--as serving others--is why I am largely happy and content despite those who protect themselves "with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees" and demean and discredit what I do.

People seem to have a twisted notion that "service" means spending a day with the litter patrol or helping at the soup kitchen or any of those kinds of activities.  That is a bizarre understanding of what service means.  To me, service is what we do everyday--at our work, with our friends and family, to strangers (like at the soup kitchen,) and even to the backyard squirrel.  Service is an understanding that life is not merely about me.

Citing researchers, Brooks writes:
[Everyone], in every industry, affects the lives of co-workers, supervisors, customers, suppliers, donors or investors. How often do we spend our morning commute thinking consciously about how to make their lives better through our work? What if we made this as routine as our morning coffee?
To serve is that simple.  And in order to that, one does not need to focus on more, more, and more.  And one does not have to focus on how to keep rising either.

2 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

I am not sure we are built to think more is better, but we are raised to think more is better. It is the basis of the American dream. I am not sure it is a modern phenomenon though. Rich people for centuries have built bigger castles, more luxurious carriages, bigger yachts, traveled to more exotic places, etc., in constant competition with their neighbors.

It is widely proven in research that serving others by volunteering improves many a bad mood, episodes of self-pity and occasional bouts of mild depression. The same must be true in paid positions as well. How else can one explain so many people doing so much thankless work for so little money - social workers, nurses, teachers, public safety officers, etc.

Sriram Khé said...

I will add this to your list: the vast number of NGOs. While our opinions might diverge on the causes that NGOs champion, I am sure we will agree that most people who commit themselves to the NGO work are not after money.

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