Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Happiness: On the Job and in Life

In this post, Matt Heusser does a great job describing some of the problems around hiring older workers and some of the reasons older workers become less valued.  Obviously, this is a concern for all technology workers in the field, regardless if you are in test, operations or development.  I have not had much experience with it, but I do feel some of the call that those who are in the 40s and 50s start to feel.  I don't want to invest hours upon hours doing development outside of work while working 40 hours a week.  This blog, which I write for often, requires time which I could use to get money from somewhere else.  I don't get paid to do this.  Sometimes I clarify my own thoughts, or use this to prompt me to learn, but more often than not I am actually trying to teach others the hopefully valuable information I have.

However, there is a underlying subject I think is more important than just ageism in the work place.  I want to talk about happiness.

First, a few words, I am not a doctor of any sort, I am not giving advice for depression and if you are experiencing depression you should see a doctor.  One other thing, I'm going to ask you to resist clicking all the exciting links until after you've finished reading this article, as there is a metric ton of data on the subject, but interrupting the narrative will likely distract you.  Now on with the show...

Were We Happy In The Past?

In the past, almost everyone did farming.  There were a few other jobs, like tailor, doctor and merchant, but most people were farmers.  These jobs were fairly well known and a town depended on one (hopefully) competent doctor, one tailor, etc.  A large town might have a few of each, but only in the cities were there really any large quantities of any specialties.  These specialties were all relied upon and considered vital.  While there was anger around the usage of power and prestige these ranks sometimes bestowed, in general they were good jobs.  Life could be brutish and short.  However, the idea of manifest destiny  and excitement of the renaissance show that life in the past could be seen as meaningful.  Is being a farmer happy making?  Or being a doctor or ...?  Sadly, there is little documentation I could find about happiness in the distant past.  However, I did find lots on various problems we see an experience today.  It seems that the general fighting we have today was going on in the past.

It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them. -  Richard Burke to Samuel Johnson, 1783.
The number of technical students has declined constantly... IF THE SAME TEACHER CAN INSTRUCT 500,000 OR MORE [students] SIMULTANEOUSLY? - Radio Electronics, 1956,

So while I have been unable to find anything quantitatively correlated to happiness in the distant past (and only a few data point in the recent past), it does seem that the same challenges facing us have been unchanged in the past few hundred years.  We are constantly looking for productivity changes while desiring to keep our hard gotten gains.  Furthermore, while I have yet to read this tome, Steven Pinker suggests that we were actually more violent in the past.  So if violence decreases happiness, which I have found lots of evidence for, it would appear there is little basis for the assumption we were happier in the past.  In fact, it appears arguable that collectively we might be over all happier now then in the past!

Do Jobs Affect Happiness?

The next question is, do we know if farmers of today are happier compared to the general population?
In a word, no.  Happiness and job are nearly unrelated, however there are a few key factors that matter.  One is that you have enough money to survive and not worry about where your next meal will come from.  Another is having meaningful work and yet another is having autonomy.  There are also some negative correlations with jobs.  For example, not getting enough sleep or too much mental stress (some physical stress is good for you).  Lacking creativity can be an indirect form of mental stress as well.  Often this comes in a form known as boredom.  Basically, I think I can sum it all up in a single sentence:

You want a job that pays a living wage with difficult but surmountable and clear goals in which you have enough control to get it done and in which you will get back useful unambiguous feedback and time to recharge.

Great, we're done, right?  Well, I want to explore some more topics around this and how I think the reason our job does not seem highly connected to happiness.  The first is that we don't know how to practice being happy, so why would ones choice of job have an affect?  That is to say, if happiness is fairly mysterious then choice of job will appear to be a random or not related to happiness.  So how do you practice happiness?  For that matter, how can we discuss happiness when there are so many varying view on how to create it.  Is it something that comes without you noticing it or is it something you can actively seek?  If significant increases in wealth doesn't change happiness but for a small and short period of time, what does?

Rather than going on with so many links, I'm going to stop citing so many sources.  The purpose of this essay is not to do research for you but rather to explore the subject and not just trends I have seen in the research.  Furthermore, I wish to explore how to have a happy life, not just being happy on the job.

How We "Need" Society for Happiness

Helping others can, in and of itself hurt those we hope to help, without regards to the permission they give. You might have heard the phrase "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." The correlation to that would be, "What makes life easier makes you weaker."  Obviously things like chronic pain and long term mental stress eventually do damage to a human being, but in general these two ideas have some truth to them.  Consider the case of the blind, a blind person might appreciate being given an 'extra hand' but at the same time, that might also make them less able to do things on their own when that helping hand isn't around.  Married couples are known to have slightly lower IQ than the unmarried because of dependencies on each other.

In a sense, as John Donne said, no man is an island. That does not equal a learned dependency in my book. Babies have real dependencies. We are dependent on doctors during surgery. We depend on lots of things. However, learned dependencies are not things we are incapable of doing. Maybe we don't want to do them or maybe it would cost too much of our time, but a learned dependency is when you quit trying because you're not expected to try. I suppose you could say I quit trying to change my oil because Jiffy Lube says I'm not expected to try. However, I would argue that my dependency on oil changes is more a matter of time, energy and my personal interest. That being said, it is a fine line.

In regards to happiness, is happiness truly just an internal thing or does it have external dependencies?  Can you live and enjoy pure silence, or do we really need music?  It is an interesting question, but even if you depend on external things, they may not really require other humans.  Enjoying waterfalls or existing books for example require no (new) human work.

Learned dependency, be it having someone else get you around, using a calculator to do math or depending on others for happiness is a problem because now you need something else in order to do the things that you want. I don't know how to give an algorithmic way of judging when it is enabling and undermining independence and when it is a genuine hand up.  Perhaps it is even in part personal taste, as the hermit choose no or few dependencies while the city dweller depends on many people for city services.  The hermit might even see those city services as enabling the city dweller, as the city dweller needs the bus in order to go see the opera they desire to see.  That is always a struggle, and has been one for ages.

If our dependencies on others needs to be managed, it seems only reasonable to ask about the other way around.  How do I prevent asserting myself into other people's need for genuine challenge? The Bible famously asks the question:
Am I my brother's keeper? - Genesis 4:9
In that case it was a way of ignoring responsibility for the murder of his brother, but the question of responsibility and social value for watching out for others has been around for centuries.  I don't pretend I will answer the question today, but I think it is a balancing act.  Rarely do we know what we really want. Our simulators for happiness are poor at best. Dan Gilbert talked about that in his TED talk.  So if we have a hard time knowing what will make us happy, pretending we know what other people want is silly.  This can become a wicked problem when what you want to do is help others but worry about foisting your culture, will or opinions on others without giving them room to grow.  Teachers suffer this question all the time.

 Can Happiness be Treated as a Duty?

The Stoic's claimed virtue is sufficient for happiness and that virtue is created by a will that is aligned with nature.  Kant's Categorical Imperative, in a very rough and simplified form, linked duty to what you imagine a reasonable person would do.  So unless you imagine a reasonable person would choose to be unhappy most of the time, it would appear happiness might in fact be a duty.  There are other philosophical theories like Hedonism which say that you should look to maximize long term happiness.  That is to say, have the day to day discipline to make your life better in the long term.  All of these various ideas about optimizing life with consideration for happiness seem to have something of a pattern to them.  They all push us to grow.  Be it via virtue, by considering how a reasonable person would live or look at the long term and attempting to minimize pain.

So how do you generate growth?  Well one aspect is to not be in fear.  Fear often is the opposite of growth.  You need to feel safe enough that you can work.  Even when in fear, such as when in a castle surrounded by an army, you have enough pause to feel safe enough to gather your wits and think.  Safety by itself isn't enough.  While safety is important, you have to be safe to try experiments, pushing yourself beyond what you have done before or in new ways allows for the growth, which leads towards happiness.  The feeling of growth is in my view, at least one of the causes of happiness.  However, if one only attempts to grow in one area, it can become an addiction.  Growth also has to relate to goals, and in particular unending goals.  Goals you can meet can later feel unsatisfying.  For example,  when you think of buying something, you feel more satisfaction then after you have purchased the item.  Since having meetable goals is less likely to create happiness, how do you create a unmeetable goal?  You could say, "I will weigh 150 lbs in 3 months," but this is an unsatisfying goal.  If you make it, maintaining it is much more difficult.  Instead, I will go to the gym 3 days a week remains satisfying because there is no 'end point'.

In addition to safety, you also need time to develop happiness.  You need to have time to work on your goals, or else you stagnate into surviving life.  Time can mean exact and dedicated time, such as a day of the week or hour in the day, or it can mean just having open variable spots.  Time is perhaps one of the trickier things to give detail on because different people like doing things in different ways.  Some people like things well planned out while others like to be more sporadic.  I have not seen evidence demonstrating that one is superior to the other, but personally I rather have some vague planning rather than chaos or an exact fixed schedule.

While the goals don't change often, they should be allowed some variety.  If you always go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you may end up burnt out.  Instead, you probably should have some time allocated to 'breaking' the goal.  Going to the library once a month instead of your Wednesday workout.  You should feel the pull to get back into the routine which helps make the routine more satisfying.  If you don't feel excited to go back into the routine, it demonstrates something is wrong with your goal.

Finally, you need to be able to see that these goals are working.  Without being able to check up on your goals, without being able to study the results and see if they match expectations you get little satisfaction from 'achieving' them.  While weighing 150 lbs might be a very watchable (E.G. an easy metric), you don't need that to see if going to the gym is helping you or not.  Since using easy metrics tend to make goals that end, those are likely not the first type of metric choices to make.  Saving enough money to buy a house is an admirable goal, but learning the habit of saving should be the real goal.  So using 'enough money to buy a house' as the measurement means you're probably watching the wrong thing.

Now if you have been reading this far, you'll probably notice something interesting.  I'm going to break a general rule I have of not copying and pasting and repeat myself from above.  Basically, I think I can sum it all up in a single sentence:

You want a job that pays a living wage with difficult but surmountable and clear goals in which you have enough control to get it done and in which you will get back useful unambiguous feedback and time to recharge.

If you noticed what I wrote in the job section and in the life section, you can see the life section is very close to a repeat.  In fact I would use the job section as a sort of check sum from what was discussed in the broader life category.

The idea that you can treat happiness as a duty is not exactly correct.  Instead, just like with getting a job that creates happiness, you need to do similar things in life.  It maybe formulaic sounding, but it is more complicated in one's actual life than any author can generalize.  A duty implies it is required, but this is more of a method, backed by out current science and history.  Can other methods work?  Maybe.  Is what I have written 100% correct for your life.  Very likely not.  All situations vary.  But the general ideas seem to remain consistent throughout time.

Disagree with me?  Well, my goal is to engage my readers, so please leave a comment.  I'll be happy to reply.  Oh yes, and now feel free to go click all those links and enjoy all that awesome data.