What makes a person happy?
I grew up watching my father leave for work every day in the morning and return in the evening. He worked hard, paid for the schooling of two children, built a house for his family and, in time, retired. I watched him transition smoothly and happily into retirement. He would sit on the porch, play with his grandchildren and leisurely watch the world go by. He had a peaceful, beatific look on his face. That picture remained with me. To me, ‘retirement’ is associated with peace and happiness, of a life well lived.
Even a few decades earlier, a job was a means to an end, to earn money to enjoy life. Life and enjoying life were simple: time with family and friends, dinner round the kitchen table, visiting friends and neighbors, a walk in the park, a movie with friends or a vacation at the beach. Simple, reasonable, family oriented pleasures. Technology and automation gradually crept into the labor force. That was taken as a good thing. Automation made grueling, repetitive, boring jobs a thing of the past. Assembly products became cheaper and better, efficiency and productivity rose. The expectation was that we could maintain the same or higher level of productivity by putting in less hours of work. Said differently, we would have to work less to maintain the same standard of living. We would have more leisure and time to enjoy life.
We know that did not turn out as expected. People are working longer and harder and yet feel like they are falling behind. Many are not happy or content taking part in the rat race to the top. We constantly complain of the daily grind, the bad bosses and the long commutes. With advanced technologies: cell phones and laptops, work follows us home. There is no real distinction between home and the workplace. Tomes have been written and the air waves are full of punditry on this topic. But I want to address subtle, not so well discussed or appreciated facts on the shift of our attitudes towards work, our self-worth and what we perceive as giving us satisfaction.
Nowadays, work is no more a means to an end, it is the end itself. People are supposed to find fruition and satisfaction from their work. This is true for many artists, musicians and writers. We all know of such cases of creative individuals who loved their work and were prepared to persevere even though their worth may not have been recognized at the time. Chill penury stared them in the face and they lived a hard life. Many became famous only after their deaths. But let us leave such rare geniuses aside for the moment.
I know of many who are not happy in their jobs. They are well paid empty-nesters, their mortgages and children’s education are paid off, have sizable nest eggs and could retire if they wanted to. But they don’t. I have tried to analyze why they cannot take that final step towards retiring. Here are some reasons I think worth mentioning.
- Retirement has become a dirty word. I don’t understand why. It should be a demonstrable mark of success: a life well lived and planned in a well-paid job, financial savvy and a reasonable nest egg. Time now for golf, world travel or whatever the person desires. Instead, people refrain from even mentioning it. I have often heard, “I am not ready to retire and will continue working as long as I can.” Why, if the work makes you unhappy?
- It is a sign of aging. Retirement means you are past middle age, perhaps well past it. That is just a fact. We are all aging, there is nothing that can stop it, so far. Some accept this and age gracefully. Some are scared and try to deny or obscure the consequences of aging. But it can only go so far. We know that people who live relaxed, stress-free lives often live longer than the average. So, continuing to work in a stressful job is not the antidote against aging.
- Lose self-worth in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, we have tied how we value ourselves not on our intrinsic value as an individual but in how others perceive us. And we try and influence this perception by spending a lot of money and effort e.g. a big house, flashy cars, expensive vacations, all considered marks of ‘success’. We now have a perfect circular argument; we need to keep up this perception by continuously earning and spending. The minute we stop, we are perceived to have fallen off the treadmill. The solution is simple and found in our age old philosophies, ‘understand who you really are’. One soon realizes that it is possible to value yourself without overt dependence on the opinion of others.
- Scared at being alone with your thoughts. For decades now, modern life has forced upon us the need to immerse ourselves in work both at the workplace and beyond. We are constantly ‘connected’ through cellphones, tablets and laptops. We take them on vacations, in restaurants and even to bed. What if we are suddenly ‘disconnected’ as in a city wide power outage? Many would not know what to do with the free time and experience something akin to ‘withdrawal symptoms’. Similarly, what would we do with all the free time on retiring? An important study in Science showed that people would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts. Perhaps it is this that people fear most. The opposite should be the case. We should be delighted with all the free time available and use it to do things we always dreamed of but never had time to do. In an earlier post Man and Robot, I had made the same argument, automation and robots would lead to more free time and leisure.
In the end, people are different. Some may find fulfillment and satisfaction in immersing themselves in their work to the point that they become strangers to their families. Their work becomes their identity as Ryan Avent nicely describes in his article why do we work so hard in The Economist 1843. But that still begs the question, what is so addicting in their work that distances them from their family and friends. Is it money? Money is necessary up to a point to cover basic needs, but money is not the motivator here. Is it prestige, social status or power? These are sorry props for the ego and very fleeting.
Life in retirement can be leisurely and productive. I have often heard friends say, “I will go crazy if I stay at home.” I have been home for two years and have not become crazy. On the contrary, I am happily engaged in writing, something I had always wanted to do. But I do it on my own schedule, there is no pressure. It is something I want to do, not have to do and that makes all the difference. My self-worth has not diminished, not in my eyes, at least. And my wife still puts up with me, as before, when I was employed. At some point in life there is a choice: work leisurely or under pressure. What would you choose?
Ranjan Mukherjee can be reached at email@example.com