Why do I still do this everyday?

There is a haunting piece of street art on a stretch of fence along the M40 as you make your way into London. It asks the simple question:

‘Why do I still do this everyday?’

Imagine the torture of reading this sign at 7am on a wet Monday morning, as you fight your way through traffic into London?

I enjoy thinking about the people that cracked after driving past the sign, making a U-turn at the next service station in order to chase long repressed dreams of becoming a dancer, or a rapper.

I was thinking about this sign recently when reading ‘Why we work’, by Ted Talker Barry Schwartz.

I know. Why would someone read such a dull sounding book when there is Netflix? Perhaps this lockdown enforced isolation is provoking an existential crisis. Perhaps I’m just not that keen on Bridgerton. Whatever the reason, Schwartz has interesting ideas about meaning and work which I’ll share here.

But first, a deeper question.

Can money buy you happiness?

For the 200 years, following the publication of Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’, it appears that economists assumed the answer was ‘duh — yes’. Then in 1974, Richard Easterlin thought to dig a little deeper, He wrote a paper entitled ‘Does economic growth improve the human lot?’. This kick-started a whole new area of economic research.

It turns out that earning more money does make individuals (and nations) happier up until a point, and then it doesn’t. The idea is that once we meet our basic needs, an increase in income doesn’t make a lasting difference to our well-being. In Psychology this effect is explained by Hedonic Adaptation. We quickly get used to the extra salary and our happiness returns to the level it was before we got the rise.

If you are looking for conclusive evidence, that money doesn’t buy happiness, look no further than the fact that the UK’s GDP has grown 80% over the past 30 years, and yet life satisfaction levels have completely flat-lined.

Assuming that anyone reading this has met their basic financial needs, and already intuitively understand that getting a slightly higher salary won’t make a lasting difference to happiness..

..why do we still do this everyday?

One possibility is that work gives us purpose and meaning.

In his book, Schwarz describes working mind-numbing summer jobs in his younger years. Firstly, in sweaty garment factories and air-conditioned offices, and then as a junior lab researcher as part of his academic career. The researcher role was just as menial and routine, but instead he thought of the work as meaningful and exciting:

“On my path to adulthood, I did some bad work and I did some good work. And the difference between the good and the bad had less to do with my actual duties than it did with the context in which my duties were embedded”

This echoes Victor Frankl’s famous quote:

‘If you know your why, you can survive almost any how’.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that having a purpose means you skip out of bed every morning. Nor does it mean that the purpose has to be a noble cause. But there is truth in the idea that you are likely to stick to something for longer if there is a reason beneath it all.

If nothing else, this enforced time at home gives us a chance to evaluate what we want from work.

One thing I know now is that it doesn’t involve a long commute.

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