Happiness and Work

Be so happy that you imagine your desk while you relax? Something like that…

It’s hard to come up with titles.

You try to make them as specific as possible so folks know what you’re going to talk about or at least most likely to. But sometimes there’s no real way around the fact that the topic is expansive and that there are multiple ways to come at it.

Such is the case when it comes to the topic of your happiness at work. Or your co-workers. Or your bosses. Or the customers.

Fuck it, happiness in general.

The Imaginative Conservative’s Christopher Nelson, back in June wrote about whether you can buy your employees happiness.

The article leads off with a story about a CEO named Dan Price, a business executive who runs a credit card processing company in Seattle. Price thought it was a good idea to give all of his employees a big raise. We’re not talking a few thousand dollars but a raise up to a $70,000 pay.

This proved to be a bit of a problem for a few of his employees and clients. Some stated that it was unfair how new employees or lazy employees were getting as much as people who had worked there for so long as it was. It may have been more fair to institute a bigger upfront pay grade to the older and more reliable employees. At the same time, Price would then give the newer employees a chance to get up to a $70,000 pay themselves.

But whether it’s fair or not missing the point of why Price did this. Price did it based on the idea that people are happy with a higher pay, but up to a point. That point being, allegedly, $75,000.

Now, if you believed The Washington Times, then Price apparently failed/is failing and the Entrepreneur agrees with that assessment.

The results originally obtained by the Times seems a bit more nuanced than either (Price doesn’t seem to really mind or care that he’s working so hard to make ends meet but I could be wrong) but it still looks as if Price made a misstep.

Regardless of whether what he did was right or wrong it raises some interesting questions. What does it take to be happy at work and what it means when you do feel happy at work.

For example, there are lots of companies that try to make employment more “fun”. They try to put a certain aesthetic of “niceness” and “openness” to their company. They want people to know that they have an “open door policy” and that you should have fun at work! Google and other big tech companies like to proclaim that they make work much more like life.

As I’ve written elsewhere:

To paraphrase Cody Wilson, it’s just a more comforting whistle we can do while oppression is going on. Because when we look at these “nicer” relations we still see individuals subjugated to ends that are largely not their own and that they have no real investment or say in.

The trick here is that Google wants to blur the line between our lives outside of work and inside it. For both the individualist anarchist and the anti-work proponent there should be nothing more insidious and potentially destructive than this. For it assures the individual that they are not in a environment that they have little control over.

But the individualist anarchist must resist these scenarios. Whether it is the state with a nicer face (social democracy), capitalism with a nicer face (liberalism) or work with a nicer face (Google and the like). These are all just masks that these institutions and systems put on to make us as individuals feel as if we are not grossly disempowered under current circumstances.

And as anarchists we should know better. We know that the individual will not be respected in situations where their autonomy is not taken seriously. If individuals have contracts they cannot renegotiate reliably or relations they do not have as much of a say in as the other person does then how can their individual autonomy said to be respected?

To be clear, Google isn’t trying to lighten their workers load. They are trying to blur the distinctions between working for them and living. I think this idea of fusing our identity to the corporation should concern any libertarian with similar fears about tying our identity to the nation state

Likewise, when corporate executives try to raise all of their employees wages with little to no reference to either market prices (distorted as they may be) or basically anyone (it doesn’t seem like Price really thought this out) it’s not necessarily a cause for celebration. Much like open office spaces, when it’s done by the people up top (small company or large) it should be regarded with suspicion.

The long and short of it is that when the people up top are trying to solve problems stemming from the branches and the root is actually the problem, you’re going to get more aesthetic improvements and less structural changes. That’s because the root is power and for totally rational  reasons the people up top aren’t about to admit that or do much about it in most cases.

The executives at Google might divide lines between work and life, they might institute some social hours, let you drink a little bit at work and maybe go home early and all of these things are nice.

But they don’t actually challenge the larger corporate structure.

They don’t challenge hierarchy, they don’t challenge power relations, they don’t challenge capitalism and they sure as hell don’t challenge the prevailing work ethics. Maybe they give such an ethic some new lipstick, a bit of window dressing and makes you (or your boss more likely) to feel nice inside.

And it’s good to feel nice inside, I wouldn’t argue otherwise. But don’t conflate work being nice with work changing in some substantial sense. Obviously some people don’t want the world to change that much. Most folks aren’t anarchists and most people are probably vigorously against anarchism. Still, that doesn’t mean that they’re not wrong when they act like these changes in the tech companies and so on are meaningful in some way.

What would be meaningful is dismantling capitalism, the state and other oppressive cultural artifices such as bossism and expert culture while also building bottom up alternatives through DIY culture, open source technology and P2P relations, etc.

But again, if the aesthetic things are enough to make you happy at work that’s not wrong. I’m not condemning folks who are happy at Google or happy anywhere else. Instead, I think they are prioritizing happiness or options dictated from above over autonomy.

And although I think happiness is a very important part of autonomy it’s not the only thing. Just because you’re happy doesn’t mean your individual liberty is being respected or realized. Plenty of people have felt happiness in hostage situations, abusive (emotionally, physically or even both) relationships and so on. That doesn’t mean those relationships or situations were actually good for them in a more holistic sense.

Even so, I don’t think we have to deny folks happiness or deny that it exists to be anti-work. Some people genuinely do love working for 80 hours a week doing something they love. Sometimes that stuff is more socially conducive (e.g. finding a cure for cancer) and sometimes its more individually conducive (writing a novel for yourself). But either way it’s not something I would say is wrong just because it involves a lot of effort.

Your happiness matters and that should be obvious. But it also doesn’t mean you should compromise on other important things that improve the quality of your life. It’s the age old question or conflict: Is happiness worth it if you can’t have freedom? Is freedom worth it if you can’t be happy? I’d argue that they are both fairly essential to the other.

You theoretically could have one without the other. But it’s more likely you’ll have X amount of happiness mixed with Y amount of freedom.

Maybe Google has a lot more happiness in it but I have my doubts that they have much more freedom than other businesses. And at the end of the day even if they do, it wouldn’t be saying that much given how little freedom we often have at work.

Lastly, there’s apparently a Society for Human Resource Management study in 2014 that was referenced in the aforementioned Imaginative Conservative post.

The study concluded:

86% of U.S. employees reported overall satisfaction with their current job, an improvement of five percentage points since 2013; of this group, 39% reported being ‘very satisfied’ and 47% ‘somewhat satisfied.’ This percentage matches the highest level of satisfaction over the last 10 years, which was in 2009. Between 2009 and 2013, levels of job satisfaction had gradually declined.

I was very skeptical of these results since it basically fights against most of what I’ve known and experienced. Taking a look at the 2015 study I found that the results came from 600 participants in the US. I believe 1000 is the number of participants for a given result to be generally applicable or meaningful.

But even ignoring that it looks like the things that mattered most to the 600 participants were hardly ever satisfied.

For instance, “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” was important to over 70% of the people surveyed but less than 40% actually claimed to be satisfied with the levels it was happening.

In fact most of the things listed while they may be important to the participants aren’t things they’re individually experiencing in their own workplace. So how exactly how all of this translates to most people feeling overall satisfied is a mystery to me.

I’ve never felt happy at a job. At my current job there are times where I’ve genuinely smiled, laughed or felt okay but that was because of good customers, co-workers, something tangential to work happening, etc. It usually had nothing to do with work itself.

When happiness will have to do with work is when I quit this job in less than two weeks.

So there’s that.

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