You Can’t Care More Than They Do, The Sequel

I’m in the final pages of a thought-provoking book: Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor. He keeps dropping revelatory bombs, some of which shed light on the difficulty we have saying no at work.His basic premise goes like this: We are designed to seek happiness. Because the formula for happiness is pleasure + meaning + strengths, we find happiness when we are doing something meaningful that we enjoy and are good at. Something we can disappear into, where we lose track of time. So far, so good.

The kicker is this: we have most of our happiest moments – our flow states – when we’re working. That’s right: We are more likely to experience happiness working than when we are at leisure. We’re more likely to encounter meaning, pleasure and use our strengths when we are working. That’s what the research shows.There’s something else in the research: We believe that happiness is connected to leisure, not work, even though we report having more happy experiences at work. This mismatch between what we believe (leisure=happy) and what we experience (work=happy) points to a deep-seated prejudice against work in our culture. It’s as though we’re not supposed to love our work or bring the idea of pleasure into the work equation. Pleasure belongs to that 10th game of shuffleboard on the cruise ship, not to making the annual report look amazing. What’s up with that?

Apparently, many of us are channeling Immanuel Kant , who sternly told us that duty is the only moral action and that moral action is the only route – however circuitous – to happiness. There can be no meaning without duty, and duty involves the sacrifice of at least some self-interest. Therefore, meaningful work equals duty, duty equals sacrifice, and sacrifice equals happiness. You can’t have one with out the other. As for pleasure, forget about it. Taken to its logical extreme, this means the more self-interest you sacrifice, the more meaningful and moral are your actions and the happier you must be. This is what’s burning us out.It’s also 180 degrees wrong.

We don’t have to suffer to do good work. Enjoyment doesn’t invalidate it. We won’t be punished for taking care of ourselves. In fact, the work gets more valuable when I put enjoyment on an equal footing with doing good work. When I add self-interest to the mix.According to Kant, that is heresy. According to the way we are designed and the latest research on happiness, it’s the simple truth.I find this enormously comforting. I’m not all that good at leisure. It bores me if it goes on too long. I hate shuffleboard and miniature golf. I like working. I love contributing – I just don’t like being in endless sacrifice mode. It’s an attractive thought: I can dial up the pleasure and dial down the pain – and be happier – with a simple Kantectomy. Who’s in?

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