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Misery Loves (Your) Company

We’ve all heard the idiom, “misery loves company.” Well, it loves YOUR company, and all companies apparently. Research shows that nearly everyone at work is miserable. This is a tough realization since the average American spends 47 hours per week at work.


In a typical week, how many hours do you work?

Sophocles first wrote about this (what I call) “Universal Truth” c. 408 B.C. “It is a comfort to the miserable to have companions in their sad state.”


408 B.C…

(I’m going to let that sink in for a sec…..)

The phrase was first used in English in 1349. So, the New York Times article, “Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work” nearly 700 years later caught my eye. The article states:

“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.”

‘So, then, what’s an ambitious, hard-working, well-trained girl to do?’

“Identify the bliss zone and get back into it,” declares the author. (The Bliss Zone? Is that a new Dove Bar? If not, it should be.)

In fairness, he acknowledges that’s “easier said than done.”

The article is a fabulous glimpse into human behavior, even if that wasn’t its original intention. He gets into the murky evolutionary psychology pond here, perhaps unknowingly.

“People are wired for progress, and regression looks and feels like failure…We are built to think that more is better.”

Wait! So…maintaining one’s state of happiness is a proverbial plateau, and plateaus are flat so there’s no upward movement, which makes plateaus failures, therefore maintaining one’s state of happiness is failure in a syllogistic sense. OK. I’ll accept the premise of your logic problem, Arthur C. Brooks, but only because famous quotes from throughout history affirm this fundamental belief:

“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing what will be.” - Kahlil Gibran

(Why is there something wrong with what “is”?)

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress - Frederick Douglass

(Whoa! Heavy, dude.)

“Progress is impossible without change.” - Steve Jobs

(OK, that might be true in technology. 30/Love, Jobs)

So, then, happiness really isn’t a sustainable proposition because we are compelled by cultural forces to keep changing and progressing. Just yesterday, Harvard Business Review published findings that, “supervisors and managers had the highest likelihood of depression.” In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. WOW! People really are miserable at work!

But the NYT article turns a corner - a very important corner. Arthur C. Brooks explains:

“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…The type of work is actually less important than the attitude of the worker.”

I agree with the former, and The Origins of Virtue (considered a classic text in the field) explores our proclivity for cooperative service to others. Check.

But the latter claim is problematic. I mean, he had me at Bhagavad Gita, but it’s more than the “attitude of the worker; it’s reframing and reprogramming how we define our own happiness and success, devoid of what others think.

I say this because I’m firmly in the evolutionary camp, believing that human nature is “the product of a universal set of evolved psychological adaptations to recurring problems in an ancestral environment,” or, as I like to call it, “hardwiring.” I believe we have far less individual free will than we would like to believe, making opposable thumbs the thing that really separates us from the animals. We have the ability to reason, but not necessarily the inclination, discipline, or motivation to do so.

Dan Ariely, (my Fairy Godfather) writes:

“If people were simply perfectly rational creatures, life would be wonderful and simple. We would just have to give people the information they need to make good decisions, and they would immediately make the right decisions…Sadly, life is not that simple and most of the problems we have in modern life are not due to lack of information, which is why our repeated attempts to improve behavior by providing additional information does little (at best) to make things better…This is the basic problem: we have our internal software and hardware that has been developing over the years to deal with the world. And while we have some tremendous abilities, there are many cases in which these skills and abilities are incompatible with the modern world we have designed.”

So, let’s rethink happiness. Let’s redefine progress. Let’s reduce the pressure to “succeed” by societal definitions so that misery won’t have any company to love and people can just love each other’s company.

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