Go with the Flow

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Published: November 23, 2014 1:06 AM

Most people will go home, bitch about their day at work, badmouth a colleague or two and generally act...

Most people will go home, bitch about their day at work, badmouth a colleague or two and generally act as if their jobs are not worth the salaries they are paid. The truth is surprisingly different. Your job, however routine it may appear, is giving you more happiness than you realise. Research indicates that people who are very good at what they do—banker, accountant, journalist, corporate executive, software engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc—gain a level of happiness that has nothing to do with the money they are making. It’s the high of a job well done that makes them feel good, not the money itself. These are people who are productive and satisfied with their jobs, thus creating positive feelings of self-worth, pride and contentment.

The extra money the hard work creates is simply an added benefit—the good feelings would be there regardless of the payoff. People with jobs they find highly satisfying, but that don’t pay as well can be just as content. One reason is because of the challenges involved. People get a charge out of pushing their mental and physical capacities to the limit, and that brings a feeling that no amount of money can buy. Scientists have nicknamed this phenomenon ‘Flow’ and they credit it for a number of positive emotions. In fact, results of one study indicate workers would happily take a 20% pay cut if it meant their job would involve more variety or require more skill. The new research takes pains to distinguish between two metrics that are often confused: emotional well-being versus what’s called ‘life evaluation’. Emotional well-being is what is equated with happiness. It involves the emotional experiences you have on a day-to-day basis… being delighted, sad, frustrated, excited, lonely or fascinated. In contrast, life evaluation is how you think about your life. So if a survey asks you how satisfied you are with your life, it is not measuring happiness, but rather life evaluation.

By that yardstick, experiences are worth more than you think, as per Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, who decided to take a fresh look at the issue. His study found that people think material purchases offer better value for money because experiences are fleeting and material goods last longer. So although they’ll occasionally splurge on a big vacation or concert tickets, when they’re in a more money-conscious mode, they stick to material goods.

However, Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realised that experiences actually provided better value. “People think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value.” And yet, we still keep on buying material things, he says, because they’re tangible and we think we can keep on using them. It is this process of ‘hedonistic adaptation’ that makes it so hard to buy happiness through material purchases. The new dress or the fancy car provides a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted, and then begins the search for the next best thing.

Experiences, on the other hand, tend to meet more of our underlying psychological needs. Unlike clothes and cars and jewellery, they can be shared with other people, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity. If you’ve climbed a mountain in the Himalayas, sailed down the Nile, gone bungee jumping in New Zealand or played tennis with Roger Federer, those are things you will always remember and talk about, long after all your favourite gadgets have become extinct. Other studies that looked at materialism and the acquisition of luxury goods found that people get very used to changes in lifestyle very fast, and the novelty wears off. Lottery winners, for instance, will buy a bigger home in a new neighbourhood, and all the material attributes required to live in that area become a never-ending hedonistic treadmill. There’s also the issue of going against your natural inclination. You may have been happier sitting with friends in a local pub and, now, having to frequent fancy restaurants full of strangers may provide some ego-boosting, but not happiness. However, there is an important caveat. Those who have conducted research on the subject in the field divide happiness into two components, and you need to have both parts working together to be truly happy. Only one of the components keeps improving the more you earn. The other peaks at a certain point. The first measure of happiness is ‘evaluative’.

It is when you feel that you’re satisfied with your life and you’re progressing towards your life goals. The other component of happiness is ‘affective’. It looks at how often you experience positive emotions like joy, affection and tranquility, as opposed to negative ones. Happy people do experience negative emotions, except not as often, which is why you need to have both components working. The bottomline is that work may bring stress, challenge, obstacles, deadlines, but if you succeed in dealing successfully with them, the high, or the Flow, without the individual quite realising it, cannot be matched in monetary terms.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express

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