Wednesday, December 28, 2016
What exactly did I achieve last year? Is next year going to be all that different? What's the point of working so hard? How can I find a better balance between work and play?
To tell you the truth, I'm divided between all my old professional ambitions and a desire to slow down, smell the roses and have more fun.
Of course, one of the key lessons of economics is that we're often faced by conflicting but desirable objectives, and the answer is to find the best trade-off between them. The particular combination that yields most "utility" (aka happiness).
Unfortunately, that's about as far as economists' advice goes. Fortunately, psychologists' advice is a lot more practical.
Economists are big on working to make money, then using the money to buy the things that make us happy. Which things, exactly? Who knows? Economists cop out at this point by assuming you know what things make you happy.
Psychologists assume nothing, but conduct studies and experiments to see which things make us happiest and whether we always know to pick them.
Often we don't. Some years back I wrote up the recommendations of three North American psychologists in their paper, If money doesn't make you happy then you probably aren't spending it right.
Their advice included spending on experiences rather than objects, spending on others rather than yourself (eg Christmas) and on small pleasures rather than big luxuries.
Research shows that small pleasures – such as a cold beer on a hot day or, for my family, a hot cup of tea on a cold day – are some of life's most "salient" (noticeable) instances of happiness.
But soon after, three marketing academics, Jennifer Aaker, Melanie Rudd and Cassie Mogilner, published a complementary paper, If money does not make you happy, consider time.
Ah yes, time. One of the most valuable commodities we possess, but often spend unwisely. We work less efficiently than we could (guilty) and waste too much of our leisure time sprawled in front of the box watching reruns of Midsomer Murders (ditto).
Time tends to be laden with personal meaning – we live through it, after all – compared with money which, at best, contains potential. And time fosters interpersonal connection.
Since both personal meaning and social connection have been found to be critical to happiness, for individuals to consider how they spend their time ought to be important in their efforts to "solve the happiness puzzle".
The authors' first suggestion is to spend time with the right people. That doesn't mean cosying up to Malcolm and Lucy, it means that social leisure activities contribute more to happiness than solitary ones.
People who engage in social activities more frequently, experience higher levels of happiness than those who engage less often.
Whatever the activity, you usually enjoy it more if you do it with other people.
But it's not only whether you spend your time with others, but who the others are. More satisfaction comes from spending it with friends, family and significant others (or "the wife", as we probably should revert to saying during the Trumpocene) than with bosses and co-workers.
That's no doubt true but, since most of us have little choice but to spend much time with workmates, it makes a lot of sense to turn workmates into friends whose company we enjoy.
The authors say two of the best predictors of people's general happiness are whether they have a best friend at work, and whether they like their boss.
As the quality of workplace friendships increases, so do happiness and productivity, studies suggest.
The authors' second suggestion is to spend your time on the right activities. Regular checking by testers shows that hanging out with family and friends comprise the happiest parts of the day, whereas working and commuting make for particularly unhappy portions of the day.
But, again, if you can possibly wriggle your way into a position where you enjoy your work, you'll do much better in the happiness stakes.
Third suggestion is to enjoy the experience without spending the time. Neurological studies show people get much pleasure merely from thinking about activities they find pleasurable.
You can get a lot of pleasure from reading up on and planning a holiday even if, for whatever reason, you end up putting it off.
You can derive pleasure from window shopping, and the pleasure gained from shopping for a dress may exceed the pleasure from actually acquiring the dress, they say.
But the authors' next suggestion is roughly opposite to the previous one: expand your time. Rather than spending a lot of time salivating over future purchases or adventures, focus on "the now".
One possible benefit from being present-focused is that it slows down the perceived passage of time, allowing people to feel less rushed.
In one study, people instructed to take long, slow breaths for five minutes not only felt there was more time available to get things done, but also perceived their day to be longer.
Let me wish that 2017 is a year in which you perceive yourself to be less rushed.