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A few years ago…..
Several decades ago (more and more of my stories start out that way) I was watching a nighttime news-tainment show. The host was Forest Sawyer or Stone Phillips or someone else with a very eco-friendly sounding name (Sonny Day? Ray Cycling?) and he was interviewing a young couple about their finances: the husband worked full-time, and the wife worked part-time so they could make ends meet. They had children and they had bills and you could see in their faces that they were gamely paddling as fast as they could and the boat was gradually sinking beneath them. The wife was especially distressed because she felt guilty about working when she really wanted to spend more time with her kids.
As the segment played out, Stone Forest asked her about expenses she incurred due to working and the list soon became fairly long: work clothes, dry cleaning, gas and insurance for their second car, the meals they ate out because she was not at home to cook, childcare, and so forth.
And then, in his most weighty TV announcer voice, Stone Forest dropped the bomb: after paying taxes and Social Security on her modest earnings, plus all the expenses she incurred to work, her job was actually costing them money. At the end of each workweek, after five days of doing what she didn’t want to do, she had actually made things worse. The woman sat, a puzzled expression on her face belying the confusion racing around in her mind. Then she began to cry.
I was moved by that segment, because it struck me as a genuine tragedy, and here is why. When pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs there are three possible outcomes. First, the drug can work, as expected, with limited side effects, and all is good. Second, the drug might not work, and the people who take it get no benefit, which is bad news for the patients who might have benefited and for the company, which spent a decade and billions of dollars to reach a dead end.
The third outcome is the tragedy: the drug not only does not help the patient, it actually causes harm. In one 1993 clinical trial, fifteen patients were being treated for hepatitis B. For eight weeks all went well, but then problems began to crop up. In week thirteen one patient was admitted to the hospital with a failing liver, and eventually five patients died while two more were saved only by liver transplants. When trying to help causes harm, that is tragic (my wife frequently reminds me that ‘trying to help’ and ‘helping’ are not the same thing, but that’s another story).
Life is full of problems, and some of the solutions we try are simply ineffective (e.g. every weight loss plan ever sold on television, slaying zombies with harsh language). But the young mother’s job and the failed clinical trial illustrate something far worse: working hard to fix something while actually making it worse than before. If you have ever been on a mind-numbingly long road trip and realized that your last half hour of driving has taken you further from your destination, not toward it, you have experienced this. If you have ever tried to woo someone with falsetto singing and a banjo, only to learn that you have been pranked, and instead of loving these skills, she actually despises them, then you probably get this. Also you are probably Andy Bernard.
We could label these self-harming actions “anti-helpful” and that leads me to the term that was an early working title for this project: Anti-Happy. It’s the idea that people invest time, money, and energy in things that they believe will make them feel better, but that actually make them feel worse, and to me this is tragic. And we all do it.
I will circle back to this idea again in later posts, but for today here are five things that are commonly anti-happy in people’s lives, courtesy of Tim Ferris, author of The Four-Hour Workweek, The Four-Hour Body, The Four-Hour Chef, and La Semana Laboral de 4 Horas, which is Spanish for “the four-hour nacho cheese dip recipe”:
- For starters, don’t try to do everything at once. If you tackle a list of goals (like this one), choose one thing at a time to work on. You are more likely to succeed and less likely to succumb to anti-happy frustration.
- Don’t check email constantly. Ferris describes your Inbox as, no kidding, “a cocaine pellet dispenser,” and if you know the thrill of “you’ve got mail,” you get this. But it tends to distract you, and at times upset you, and it reduces your productivity as well. Batch it and do it all at once or twice a day, and turn off that little thingy that pops up on your screen or makes a “ding” each time a new message comes in. That ding thing is evil.
- Don’t work more to try to fix being ‘too busy.’ Have an honest conversation with yourself (or a close friend, if you can handle the truth) about work and life, and if you are doing too much, take steps to fix the real problem.
- Leave work at work. Unplug from the phone, close the work email, and live a life outside the office. Most days the US economy will survive your absence.
- Don’t expect work to fill holes in your life that need relationships or activities. Work can stealthily take over your life. Rebalance every so often to make sure you are spending your life well, as you have a set number of days allotted here and you should make them count.
Also, don’t even think about writing a book called “The Four-Hour ANYTHING” because that’s going to go badly for you and your attorney.
Hippocrates and company are credited with this idea as it relates to medicine: “Practice two things in your dealings with disease: either help, or do not harm the patient.” The American Marketing Association lists this as principle number one of ethical practice. So take a hard look at the things you invest time, money, and heart in and ask if they are really getting you what you want, or if they are making things worse. Be certain that your efforts to climb out of the hole are not just digging it deeper.
Just in case your life is lacking in falsetto banjo music you can listen and sing along here.
Next time: If Disneyland is not really the happiest place on earth, then what is? Hint: it’s not in California or Florida.
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