Being Happy at Work Is Simply Not Enough
This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we work today, from video conferencing to using productivity apps for off-label purposes to appeasing our robot overlords.
When J. Lo and Shakira put on their “provocative” performance during the Super Bowl halftime show in January, was it an act of female empowerment or a demeaning objectification? Just kidding. People will never agree on that. But I bet everyone can agree on this: Technology-driven change is accelerating, wiping out entire job categories one day, while inventing entire new ones the next. (Goodbye call center operator, hello social media coordinator.) So you’re right to be worried about what the future holds when it comes to your career. It’s not just How can I make my job better tomorrow? It’s Will I even have a job tomorrow? And Is any of this within my control?
That anxiety has spawned an onslaught of books seeking to prescribe the best response to it. Some appeal to readers on a day-to-day, micro level: What is my future job starting to look like, and what should my individual response to that vision be? Others are broader, more sweeping: What is the economy of the future starting to look like, and what should our collective response to that vision be? The best answers to each are rooted in creativity; the worst are hamstrung by wishful, delusional, or even cynical thinking, in particular the sort that relieves our societal institutions (and corporate overlords) of any responsibility for our collective fate—the onus is on you!—as if they weren’t simply collections of people too.
The fundamental premise of Designing Your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness At Work is that you are the boss of you, that your job and career are actually things you can “design” (as opposed to merely accept), and that happiness is only one revised “Worklife” draft away. This is not the first time Bill Burnett and Dave Evans have advocated a “design-based” approach; their first book did the same thing, but with life, not work, as your object of design. And now they’re back, promising to change all of our jobs the same way they congratulate themselves for helping “hundreds of thousands of people [to] use design thinking to improve their lives.”
By my count, there is one single piece of wisdom in this book, and it is this: You really can change your mind about some things, and the way to get unstuck from many a seemingly intractable work situation is indeed to reframe the problem. But that only works when it works—just like diets. Diet books, of course, can usually be summarized in just three words: Everything in moderation. But it’s hard to sell three words for $27.95, so they come garnished with candy fluff. That’s kind of what we have here: a diet book for your work life.
Every generation has its self-help books. Even as times change, though, the books all seem to be written by the same kind of person: The softness at the core of the “you should feel better about yourself!” argument usually coincides with equally squishy author biographies. This book is different: Burnett was a product leader at Apple and Evans cofounded Electronic Arts, a hugely successful videogame maker. Could the secrets of Apple’s success be within it? Might you be able to design your work life in the same way they designed the iPhone? Can you use checklists for personal quality control? When the authors tell you “Don’t Resign, Redesign!,” are they doing anything more substantial than playing with rhymes?
Not that I can see. In fact, it’s hard to see the enduring (let alone the immediate) value to someone struggling to find meaning at work by contemplating a bunch of acronyms that the authors seem to view as worthwhile. What kinds of people are in every organization? If you measure along two axes, authority and influence, you have: noninfluential authoritarians (NIA), influential nonauthoritarians (INA), influential authoritarians (IA), and noninfluential nonauthoritarians (NINA). Is this a valuable taxonomy or simply a list of all the possibilities, like eye color? All I got out of that was that I can’t decide if I want to be an INA or an IA.
Let’s be generous, though, and say it might make for a fun game at happy hour. But even then, a closer reading shows that many of the examples this book contains are actually quite insidious. It’s only the superficial among us, we are told, who focus on things like money. If you really care about yourself, you will listen to psychologists. “The research on human motivation, called ‘self-determination theory,’ says that we are intrinsically motivated animals,” we are told. What drives us? That would be ARC, or autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
Once you figure out your own ARC, the thinking goes, then you will soon be picking up speed on the one-way road to happiness. While it’s hard to argue with either of the above on their face—money isn’t everything, and we all have different things that matter to us—this isn’t a book about life. It’s a book about jobs. And the only person involved in the “design” of your job who would advise you that you should focus less on money and more on personal fulfillment is the one who signs your paycheck. This book is a CFO’s dream.
If you want to read a book that explains what’s problematic about the whole happiness thing, pick up Manufacturing Happy Citizens, by Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz, instead. Do we all want to be happy? Of course we do. But our generation’s sudden obsession with personal fulfillment isn’t an accident, argue Cabanas and Illouz. It’s more like a trap that so many well-meaning people, including Burnett and Evans, in all their earnestness, have fallen into.
First, employers bailed on helping you save for retirement. Then they started ducking helping you pay for health care. Finally, with the unwitting help of authors preaching personal empowerment, they’re bailing on the obligation to care about your happiness at all. In the end, money might be the only thing left that corporations feel obligated to offer the rank-and-file, and yet book after book stumbles into the broken logic of “stop asking your boss for money, because your happiness is up to you!” In another context, they’d call that an illusionist’s trick.
Consider this single sentence in the introduction of Designing Your Work Life: “Increasingly, it’s up to workers to define their own happiness and success in this ever-moving landscape.” On its face, that doesn’t seem to be a very controversial statement. It rings true to anyone well-versed in the realm of positive psychology—you don’t need to change the situation, you just need to change your mind! It’s such a seductive idea that it’s become the rallying cry of what Cabanas and Illouz refer to as the “personal society”—therapeutic, individualist, and atomized—over a more collectivist one—the sort in which we’re supposed to care about the people we spend our time with, too. With everyone looking within, fixated on their own happiness, is it any wonder that our capacity for empathy seems in free fall?
Here’s where the insidiousness comes in: Saying it’s all on you is actually the flip side of saying it’s not on them. Who is them? The social structures, institutions (including companies), living conditions and debt (student and otherwise) that just might have something to do with our collective anxieties. But the happiness experts aren’t just trying to persuade us through rhetoric that your boss is not to blame; they’ve also got science on their side.
Is there even such a thing as a “science of happiness”? We can certainly count something like the number of times you might smile, but can we quantify the content of a smile itself? Or establish whether my happy is more than your happy? Well, I guess that depends if you believe that you can erect a science on top of “discoveries” like the one this entire field was built on—the 2005 “finding” that the secret to happiness was to maintain a positivity ratio (positive thoughts divided by negative thoughts) of precisely 2.9013 or above. (Do a little research and you will be told that this “finding” has since been “discredited.” The mere fact that it was “credited” in the first place seems more like the premise for an Albert Brooks movie than something resembling science. Emotion is not a number, and neither is happiness, no matter how badly the “social scientists” want it to be.)
All that said, let’s set aside our sanity and pretend that happiness can yield to the investigative techniques of science for a moment, just so that we can close the loop on the Jedi Mind Trick. According to the people who think that they can calculate such things, our happiness comes from three primary sources: 50 percent is genetic, 40 percent is cognitive and emotional, and 10 percent is life circumstance. You can’t actually measure these things definitively—they’re guesses about an unmeasurable thing—but that hasn’t stopped them from providing scaffolding for a crucial assumption in our modern American social discourse, both corporate and otherwise. If circumstances do not have a significant effect on the workingman’s blues, we have only ourselves to blame. And from that wellspring, we have been blessed with a ridiculous number of books telling us how to turn a crappy job into a satisfying one, simply by telling ourselves a different story.
Considered in that context, pretty much the entirety of Designing Your Work Life proves as disappointing as your boss trying to convince you that you don’t deserve a pay raise despite a calculable increase in performance.
Consider, for example, this comically simplistic scenario: “Chelsea’s start-up is maturing and has stopped growing 100 percent a year, and the company isn’t naming any new directors in the near future. Chelsea wants to be promoted to director, and so she frames her problem this way: ‘How do I get a director title when they aren’t promoting anyone anymore?’”
The authors suggest the problem here is that Chelsea is “anchored” in her thinking and needs to cut herself free. How so? “[Does] she really want to get promoted, or is she bored and looking for a new challenge at work? How can Chelsea find a different role at the company that will help her learn new skills and maybe grow her career in the process?”
Setting aside the MBA-speak of “grow her career,” let’s think about that for a second. What they’re telling her is exactly what a certain Harvard Business School professor named Elton Mayo (1880–1949) would have told her boss to tell her, which is that Chelsea doesn’t even know what she wants. She doesn’t actually want the title, she wants more responsibility. There! Problem solved.
Elton Mayo is the man who brought us the human resources movement, which got its start when corporate America was at a loss for how to deal with increasing employee demands for a bigger piece of the action. Mayo claimed to “discover” something, too—that the management-labor conflict had not been caused by poor conditions and compensation but by a lack of social cohesion in the workplace.
His solution is one of the most enduring swindles the management elite has ever perpetrated on the rank-and-file—the substitution of the spiritual rewards of work for higher pay; the humanistic argument that money doesn’t bring happiness to the worker, kindness and personal fulfillment do. (It’s a swindle not because the desire for acknowledgment is not real; it’s a swindle because it’s not an either-or: We all want all of the above.)
Some jobs are always going to suck, no matter what the positive psychologists tell you. The challenge isn’t to convince yourself otherwise; it’s to find yourself a job that doesn’t suck. And despite the authors’ insinuation, the obligation to make jobs more fulfilling lies just as much with management as it does with the rank-and-file. By apparently swallowing the argument that it’s all on you—or me—the authors have unwittingly released bosses everywhere from the most important human obligations that come along with being in charge of people.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you disagree, and you do buy into the notion that happiness and work are inexorably conflated and that it’s all on your shoulders to make the parts work together. In that case, you will need some fast tips for achieving the right cognitive mix. And Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat: 30 Hacks for Bringing Joy to Your Job is where you will find them. Or won’t find them. But at least there’s a list of 30 from which to choose.
To be fair, there are a couple of hacks on author Bruce Daisley’s list that will be novel to some readers and which might actually have a meaningful effect on their ability to get things done. There will always be the first time that someone realizes that Recharge #7—Turn Off Your Notifications is a powerful way to eliminate distraction. Or take Buzz #6—Ban Phones from Meetings. Will the people rise up in anger if you try that? Probably, but it’s also a pretty good idea if we ever want everyone to be able to focus on the same thing at the same time ever again.
Telling us to stop staring at our goddamned phones is valuable advice, to be sure, but it isn’t exactly worthy of a book. And if you don’t have enough material for a book, you need padding. And there is no better source of padding than the social sciences, whose practitioners spend the vast majority of their time “studying” human behavior to tell us things about ourselves that we already know. (Or don’t know: For the full story on the dubious origins of pretty much all the social sciences in America, I refer to you Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, in which he paints a devastating picture of how “science” was used to “prove” that white males are superior to everyone else, and that society was therefore ordered just as nature wanted it to be.) The key to improving performance, you might be told, is to increase your focus on improving your performance. And that studies show that every x percent increase in focus is typically met with a y percent (statistically significant) improvement in performance.
The unsurprising result is that the majority of Daisley’s ideas for “bringing joy to your job” don’t even deserve the name “hacks”—they’re simply a laundry list of the blindingly obvious, including Go to Lunch, Get a Good Night’s Sleep, and Admit When You’ve Messed Up. If you will please mind the pun, I consider this the funniest of the hacks: Laugh. Maybe some people don’t realize that laughing puts people in a good mood. I do not know any of those people.
(But why believe me? Daisley brings the experts to bear: “Writers such as Laurence Gonzales and Al Siebert have studied the effect that laughter can have on us, suggesting that laughter cements a sense of positivity.” Why haven’t you heard of either of these groundbreaking writers? Because you don’t get credit for discovering something everybody already knows.)
Bruce Daisley is merely the latest in what is fast becoming a classic American type: the “collector” of soft (and painfully obvious) science for the rest of us. And if you’re going to play this role, all you need to remember is the tried-and-true knowledge that sounding scientific is generally as effective as actually being scientific. The trick is to make sure that people aren’t really paying attention to what you’re saying.
If this book were simply a compendium of known truths, it would make for harmless (if pointless) reading; what makes it infuriating is the mind-numbing regurgitation of common sense combined with the suggestion that it was only recently discovered by his vaunted researchers.
“Researchers Andrew Oswald and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve look at the comparative performance of siblings to see whether happier teenagers went on to perform better financially in adulthood. They found that young people who reported being more content with their lives went on to earn significantly more money later in their lives. How much more? Using accepted measures of trying to calibrate happiness into a score, their data suggested that for every 1 percent more life satisfaction that individuals showed at the age of twenty-two, they earned $2,000 more at the age of 29.”
Do happy people generally prove more effective? Do you even need to think about that? So the premise is fine. But then we get to the data. How, you might wonder, can we reasonably expect to distinguish “life satisfaction” down to the percentage point? And even if you could, is it realistic in the slightest that you can correlate percentages of life satisfaction at age 22 with dollar-value of income at age 29? Does the fact that they studied siblings somehow make it more real? Because they’ve controlled for something like “parents”? What if people who go on to be successful later in life are more likely to re-envision their happiness when they were younger? What if the happy sibling took a lower-paying but higher-satisfaction job because they’d stumbled on the research finding that money isn’t everything? To truly dismantle the above into its component bullshit parts would take even more time than this, and it’s just not worth it.
When Daisley cites research out of MIT that stuck “sociometric badges” on a bunch of call center workers, he offers up this piece of nonsense: “Call centers are an evolved form of capitalism; everything is structured around maximizing productivity.”
Is that what they mean by the word “evolved”? A better way to put it might be: Call centers are an example of how capitalism can result in truly monotonous and utterly repetitive jobs, which is exactly the kind of thing that social scientists looking to conduct “research” are drawn to. You know, with earth-shattering findings like this one: Allowing call center workers to take breaks together as opposed to by themselves makes for happier (and more productive) call center workers. Fair enough. But the urge to get all science-y is apparently too much to resist: “The groups got 18 percent more cohesive,” says a researcher. Where you stand on all this clearly depends on where you sit: Do you think that group cohesion is measurable? Can you compare the cohesion of one group to another? We can surely say that one football team seemed more cohesive than another during a trouncing. But would you ever consider saying, “Well, they won because they were 18 percent more cohesive.” Precision apparently matters a lot to these people, except when you are talking about how much you are paid. In that scenario, they want to talk about feelings. You want more money? What about more respect, instead?
Daisley, it turns out, worked at Twitter, which might explain the specific echo-chamber quality of his book. But retweets are the poor man’s path to true knowledge, and it comes from the same place as the desire for a “hack” that can bring you joy: We have become addicted to fast solutions to slow problems. We want the trick—just rub salt on the red wine spill!—that will make seemingly daunting challenges disappear in front of our eyes.
When Daisley says that “Historical evidence confirms what science suggests: that shorter hours tend to be more productive,” don’t be bothered by the fact that he has it all backwards—it’s the science that is supposed to confirm or deny that which the evidence suggests. Why is there no need for concern? Because there aren't many “findings” in this book that would require some kind of specialist to understand. Even then, he’s got people like Dan Pink—the man whose name echoes loudest off the walls of the chamber of this kind of book—to tease the insight out of it for him:" As Dan Pink has shown, setting time aside for innovation makes that innovation more likely to happen."
The problem with all these people running all these experiments is clearly revealed by the above claim. First of all, most of it is self-evident. Yes, something is more likely to happen if you try to make it happen. We can agree on that. But is this telling us anything else? Did we need Dan Pink to show us that it is so?
From the standpoint of today, the future is always going to be a range of probabilities—things more or less likely to happen tomorrow. So maybe Dan Pink does have it all figured out: All we have to do is “set aside” all of our time for the good things while starving the bad things of any time at all. And it might just be the kind of advice that is perfect for this historical moment, because if you believe the arguments in the final book I’m going to write about, then it won’t be long before many of us have no job to hack the joy out of (or into) anyway.
In the future, argues Daniel Susskind in A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, we’re going to have nothing but time. Susskind’s narrative flows out of the increasingly relevant phenomenon that the great economist John Maynard Keynes termed “technological unemployment”—the process by which man loses job to machine. It’s not a new idea, and Susskind doesn’t present it as such. What he does do, however, is expand the way we think about it.
Consider, for example, the fact that while everyone can name countless examples of machines taking away mechanical and “thoughtless” jobs from humans—that machine in your bank branch that counts 20-dollar bills at warp speed, or the contraption dealers in casinos use to shuffle cards—we’ve generally been comforted by the idea that it’s going to be a long time before machines will encroach too far into tasks that require cognitive capabilities. Even the most convincing “virtual” call center assistant will reveal its inability to think if you ask it something outside the 50 most obvious questions.
Well, it turns out that machine learning—a system’s ability to automatically learn and improve through experience without a need for explicit changes in code—has gotten a whole lot better than it used to be. More to the point, it might not be constrained the way we thought it would be: As it turns out, machines might not actually need to think about things that humans do. Machines are already as good as clinicians at diagnosing many eye diseases, and American researchers have built a system that accurately forecasts about 70 percent of Supreme Court decisions, a full 10 percentage points higher than the 60 percent hit rate of human experts.
One of the dawning insights of the machine-learning revolution is that what we think of as “cognitive” capabilities don’t actually need to begin with the top-down application of human intelligence. As Susskind writes, “They can now learn how to perform tasks themselves, deriving their own rules from the bottom-up.”
When I finally realized what that meant, I sat up straight in my chair: Artificial intelligence is barreling along at such a pace that even the jobs that seemed secure—the ones we typically think of as requiring thinking—might not be so secure after all. Consider current skin cancer detection technology: Stanford researchers have built a system that can tell whether a freckle is cancerous just as effectively as humans. It does so by drawing on a database of 129,450 past cases. In doing so, the researchers conclude, the system works “because it is able to identify and extract from those past cases the ineffable rules that dermatologists follow but cannot themselves articulate.” The machine, explains Susskind, “is making their tacit rules explicit, turning a ‘non-routine’ task into a ‘routine’ one.” Now that, my friends, is real science.
Susskind also opens up a whole new realm of worry (at least for me) when he postulates that what has long seemed like the scariest change of all—What if the machines take all the jobs away?—will only be the first in a series of ever-more-complex changes that follow. His subsequent discussion of “The Big State”—the almost certain need for central governments to expand their remit regarding taxation and redistribution—is thought-provoking in the extreme. The state has always taxed labor (and sales) because of the straightforwardness of doing so. And we’ve long been prepared to help people in the midst of transition (i.e., unemployment) if they can show they’re actually looking for a job. But what about when there are no jobs? We can’t require people to be looking for nothing, can we? And with that, I finally understood why we really might end up with a universal basic income. Today, we try to guarantee a minimum wage. But what do we do when there are no jobs? We will need a basic, or minimum, income in its place. Susskind even proposes his own flavor of the UBI—a Conditional Basic Income—premised on the idea that in lieu of actual work (this is when the machines have taken all the jobs), you still have to do something—an uneconomic contribution to the community—to be eligible. It all makes good conceptual sense, but like most things, the problem will be in the implementation. But if Susskind is right, we should have a lot more time on our hands to figure these things out when the time comes.
Because we’re not going to be able to educate ourselves back into gainful employment. Conventional wisdom says that if we teach people the new skills that they will need to succeed, we can stay one step ahead of the unemployment problems created by technological progress. But that idea, says Susskind, “is pervasive and largely unchallenged; it is also … a big mistake.” Example: The concept of “retraining” is typically spoken of as if it’s simply a matter of the desire and ability to learn (and to teach) new skills. But it’s not so simple, a point Susskind makes clear in his discussion of “frictional technological unemployment.” I’ll give you the short version: Facebook doesn’t have an office in Charleston, West Virginia. Nor should they.
But let’s get back to that creativity thing. Susskind doesn’t have all the answers, but he does point us to the places where we will need to start doing some fresher thinking than we’ve done to date. Example: Tax reform isn’t just a campaign plank in Susskind’s future; it’s an imperative. Likewise our views on what, where, and when to teach people how to survive in a world where the total number of jobs might go into irreversible decline.
On that note, maybe there could be some unintended benefit to one of the sillier ideas in Designing Your Work Life—the suggestion that you can find your way to enlightenment simply by breaking your worldview into two parts, a Workview and a Lifeview. When constructing your Workview, the authors suggest you ask yourself why you work and what money has to do with it. For your Lifeview, you need to be clear (with yourself) on the difference between good and evil. Hold on, I think I’ve figured it all out: If Susskind ends up being right, then you might just need to think about things like this. Because the question of exactly why you work could become a lot more relevant when you’re trying to figure out why you’ll never work again. So read Susskind now, and hold off on the other two until you’re permanently unemployed. Or trying to remember what it was like to laugh, because the machines are now doing all the laughing for us, too.
Unlike the first two books covered in this piece, Susskind’s book isn’t simplistic self-help for the unhappy employee. It’s self-help for society. What’s more, his suggestions for addressing our collective anxieties—and obvious oncoming challenges—aren’t some regurgitated pablum birthed in a positive psychology “laboratory” and delivered to you via the human resources department. He is very much aware that the solutions aren’t just a matter of telling ourselves that it’s all going to be OK. The sooner we come to grips with that, the less shelf space we will offer to anyone claiming to tell us they’ve figured out how many happy points you need to stockpile before you know whether or not you’ve got a meaningful job in the first place.
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