Americans are, by and large, nervous wrecks.
Great new article on this topic from Wharton. It’s called “How The Pursuit of Happiness Has Made Us Nervous Wrecks,” and honestly, I doubt I could agree with a headline more. I used to write a lot about happiness on here — I personally struggle with that topic, as I think we all probably do. Over time, I stopped writing as much about happiness on this blog. Why? First off: happiness is bullshit. We’ve all seen the memes about “choosing to be happy,” and that’s great. It’s also largely a lie. You can be content, but I don’t know a lot of people who are truly, consistently happy. Just like “bad employees,” it’s not necessarily a fixed characteristic. People are happy on Wednesday and miserable on Thursday. Employees are great at one project and awful at a second one. Maybe we should put people in boxes less, right?
Second reason I write less about happiness: this blog is mostly about work, and happiness at work is kind of a giant scam. (So is employee engagement, in large measure.) I have friends and family who love their jobs. Good for them! But I’d say 7 in 10 people I know really dislike or outright hate their job — and usually because of a clueless, berating-style manager. Work should ideally be a means to an end. Unfortunately, for many people, it’s not. It’s a source of relevance, self-worth, and the line between “where work ends” and “where family can begin” is very, very blurred. (Thank you, mobile email!)
We spend 10-12 hours/day (more?) at work, and that whole context is turning us into nervous wrecks. Just how big of wrecks? Let’s dive deeper.
What does this Wharton interview say about us being nervous wrecks?
Let me hit you with a pull quote from the top:
The World Health Organization says that America is the most anxious country on the planet and by a wide margin. A second-place country is very far down the list from America. We are, in this country, more likely to suffer from clinical symptoms of anxiety than anywhere else on the planet.
And now let me give you another one related to work from a bit further down:
I’ve talked in the book about this whole idea of happiness in the workplace. It used to be that work was work and home was where you tried to find happiness and your social life and all the rest of it. There’s been a deliberate blurring of those boundaries. You see it where workplaces are offering dentists and doctors and video games and free food and that sort of thing to keep people working longer hours. [Employers are] even sending their staff to happiness training and mindfulness training.
Ah-ha! Scam No. 3! If you apply for a job and they say “we have dry cleaning right here at the HQ,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the senior executives care about you getting errands done. It usually means they want you at work at 8pm. Many people miss this distinction, though. As a result, we’re becoming nervous wrecks.
What about work stress?
That’s 100 percent on the rise with many people. I have a theory about this, and probably most won’t agree with it — but maybe some will. Personally, I think work is not as complicated as we often make it. In reality, the deal is: you get a job, you agree to a set of responsibilities, you get compensated. If you do them well, maybe you have advancement potential. And if you do them poorly, you get fired. Managers should be in charge of communicating when workflow or priorities change. Executives should worry about the money and drive the relationships that make more money. This should be the ecosystem.
In some places, it is.
In many other places, it’s Chinese fire drill after “sense of urgency” project No. 17,489 for the year followed by conference call then aimless meetings and OH GOD TOM FROM FINANCE NEEDS THIS THING STOP AND DO IT OH WAIT NOW HE DOESN’T NEED IT.
That’s work to most people. Are we surprised we’re all nervous wrecks?
What are some other things making us nervous wrecks?
Let me give you a solid list off the top of my dome:
- The inability to make more money unless we job-hop, even though HR stigmatizes job-hopping
- Donald Trump (to at least 62 million people or more)
- Hair-trigger bosses
- Email threads that go absolutely nowhere
- The fear that 2008 recession Part II is around the corner
- Meaningless drivel from “thought leaders”
- Our health care system
- Executives who speak about “mission and purpose” and then chase revenue like a feral animal looking at trash bins
- The “high achiever myth”
- Guys peddling webinars
- How we treat veterans
- The fact that we’ll likely never get a raise/bonus despite busting our ass
- Shopping mall parking
- Whether Beyonce will retire young
- The idea of spending 12 hours/day at a place where respect is barely present
I could go on and on. You get it.
Can we make ourselves less of nervous wrecks?
Of course. Anyone can turn their stuff around. It all begins with priority (what’s important to you) and some semblance of direction (how do you want to get there). Most people are already 0-for-2. It’s usually like “I want to live in this place at this hood so I need to make this money and OK I’ll tolerate some other stuff here.” A lot of people don’t actively think about their lives. They just live them. Now, too much thinking is bad too. I’m guilty of that all the time, personally. But much like the reaction-response debate in workplaces, you need a little bit of both.
The problem is the same as the problem with work in some respects. We throw buzzwords at it. Self-help is an $11 billion industry; that’s the same size as Hollywood, give or take. Most self-help is useless. The term’s connotation is negative. “Mindfulness” is the new one. There are “mindfulness apps” now — and many. Mindfulness is essentially a Band-Aid on a dam. It works to an extent, and more for some people, but it’s not going to make us less of nervous wrecks.
You solve people problems — like anxiety — by dealing with people. It’s not software (SaaS!). It’s not apps. Deal with people and help them through the muck. Priorities, goals, cut-off times for work/family, no-screen nights, no phone-checking, whatever. Bosses will always be bad. Companies will always nickel-and-dime you; that stuff starts in the damn interview phases! You own your life. Get out and punch it in the neck like that KPI your boss is screeching in your ear about.
What else would you say about this nervous wrecks culture?