Rising to your level of misery at work

This column was originally published on September 6, 2015 in the New York Times.

EVERYONE has heard of the Peter Principle: Managers rise to the level of their incompetence. Today, however, a whole class of hyper-competent Americans will never find their level of incompetence. Instead, they will suffer a similar principle in which they rise to their level of misery.

Here’s how it works: Ambitious, hard-working, well-trained professionals are lifted by superiors to levels of increasing prestige and responsibility. This is fun and exciting — until it isn’t.

People generally have a “bliss zone,” a window of creative work and responsibility to match their skills and passions. But then the problems start. Those who love being part of teams and creative processes are promoted to management. Happy engineers become stressed-out supervisors. Writers find themselves in charge of other writers and haranguing them over deadlines. In my years in academia, I saw happy professors become bitter deans, constantly reminiscing about the old days doing cutting-edge research and teaching the classes they loved.

Why don’t people stop rising when they are happy? 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.

In 2009, scholars from the University of Illinois published a study in the journal Social Indicators Research charting the relationship between success and stress. Not surprisingly, poverty was a predictor of stress, as a lack of resources puts great pressure on everyday life. But interestingly, wealth also increased stress, probably because of high-pressure work with time constraints. So while success may initially relieve stress as people rise into the middle class, it seems to introduce a whole new set of stressful problems for those who keep climbing.

So what’s the solution?

Here’s one that many people try: Drink a lot. Research from 2010 found that people with high incomes reported consuming more alcohol than people of more modest means. Specifically, 81 percent of respondents making over $75,000 per year drink alcohol, versus 66 percent of those making $30,000 to $49,000 and 46 percent earning under $20,000.

If strategies like drinking seem less than satisfactory, one might take the problem head-on instead: Identify the bliss zone and get back into it. An unhappy dean should resign and go back to the happy professorial life, right?

Easier said than done. People are wired for progress, and regression looks and feels like failure. Furthermore, if one is a manager long enough, one risks falling behind in the skills in which one previously, happily functioned.

If the road back is blocked, are there other options? A clue comes from scholarship on jobs designed to serve others. In 2014, two researchers published an article in the Journal of Positive Psychology looking at the lives of lawyers. They found that lawyers in high-income fields like corporate law, tort and malpractice were unhappier and less satisfied than their lower-paid counterparts in service roles such as public prosecutor or legal defender. (Not surprisingly, they also drank a lot more.)

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.

I believe that service reduces stress and raises satisfaction because it displaces the object of attention from oneself. When I am working for myself, any disappointing outcome is a stressful, unpleasant reflection on me. When I am serving, on the other hand, the work is always intrinsically valuable because of its intention. Adopting a service mind-set guarantees some measure of success.

Through this added layer of intentionality, almost any work can be understood as a genuine service job. The type of work is actually less important than the attitude of the worker. This point is illustrated in the parable of a traveler who happened upon stonemasons. When he asked the workers what they were doing, one mason simply replied, “I am making a living.” But another stonemason answered differently: “I am building a cathedral.”

Every one of us is building a human cathedral. In our interconnected world and global economy, our work transforms the lives of countless others. Sometimes the impact is obvious: Managers and executives directly inflect their employees’ happiness and career success. But 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?

So cheer up, kvetchers. Relief is as close as the kindness you show to others. Build your cathedral. And for God’s sake, stop drinking so much.


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