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Pushkin. Imagine you're at a cocktail party and you're getting to know someone new. You've just asked the stranger's name and where they're from. What's the next question out of your mouth as you try to learn more about this person? If you're like most people, you might have thought to ask, so what do you do? And you probably didn't mean that question, as in, what do you do for fun? Or what do you do to relax? Or what do you do when you want to feel happier? You probably meant that query to imply, what do you do for work? And we ask this question because, at least implicitly, we think our jobs kind of matter for who we are. And not just because being a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a podcaster helps us put food on the table. These days, we often think of our jobs not just as a means to an end, but as a deep reflection of who we are. More and more, our work identities wind up taking center stage as a fundamental part of our identities, of how we think of ourselves as people. And lately, especially as I've been navigating my own sense of burnout and overwhelm, I've been wondering, is this conception of our jobs actually a good thing? Do we really want our work selves to be the main character in our lives? So in this installment of our special New Year season of The Happiness Lab, we'll be exploring what our wise inner voices might be quietly trying to tell us about our relationship with work, and whether it's finally time to gently reevaluate the identity we get from what we do. Our minds are constantly telling us what to do to be happy. But what if our minds are wrong? What if our minds are lying to us, leading us away from what will.
Really make us happy?
The good news is that understanding the science of the mind can point us all back in the right direction. You're listening to the Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos.
There's this narrative that we should keep searching and never settle. And if your job isn't perfect, then there's something wrong, and you should keep looking for a new one. And it creates massive expectations and also is dangerous.
This is author and overwork expert Simone Stalzoff. Simone is no stranger to the question of how work fits into our identities. In fact, it's a worry he's been personally trying to navigate for over a decade.
As a 22 year old at the University of Pennsylvania, I was studying poetry and economics. And so from an early age, there was already this tension between the pursuit of art and the pursuit of commerce. And I got the opportunity to interview my favorite writer in the entire world. He's this poet named Anise Mojgani. He's actually the current poet laureate of the state of Oregon. And I was so excited for this interview, and I wanted Anise to give me a pep talk. Here I was, this 22 year old young poetry student about to embark on an unknown future, and I wanted him to give me that vote of confidence to pursue something that I love. And so I asked him, how do you feel about the mantra, love what you do and never work a day in your life? And he said something that really surprised me and has stuck with me since. He said, some people love what they do, and other people do what they have to do so that they can do what they love when they're not working. And neither is more noble. And I think that last part is key. We love to revere people whose identities and their jobs neatly align. But I think Anise's wisdom was telling me that the other side of the equation, treating a job as a means to an end, is no less noble. It's nothing to fear. Being the young, naive college student that I was, I sort of did not heed his advice and spent my entire 20s looking for that vocational soulmate, looking for that job that would help me self actualize. And so I worked in advertising, I worked in tech, and I worked in food, and I worked in journalism, all the while looking for this perfect job that will help me become the fullest version of myself.
Eventually, Simone's search for his sacred calling came to a head. He found himself at a career crossroads when he was forced to choose between a long term gig as a journalist at a trendy magazine and a higher paying role at a design firm. The decision felt overwhelming.
But the thing that I realized in that moment is it didn't feel like I was choosing between two jobs as much as I was choosing between two versions of me. And so that was sort of the first kind of kernel that put the wheels in motion for the book, is understanding sort of how did we get here? How did jobs become synonymous with our identities for so many people and so many Americans in particular?
Simone's upcoming book is entitled the Good.
Enough Job reclaiming Life from Work. The book explores how we've gotten so wrapped up in thinking about work as a deep part of our identity as an almost sacred calling. But the book argues that the concept that our jobs should be the main characters in our lives is actually quite new. In fact, it's only been around for.
A generation or so.
So my grandmother, for example, lived in a small town in Italy. She had five children. They all lived in that same small town. Growing up, my grandma worked in a coffee shop, and she has this kind of single bulbous bicep from pulling down the manual lover at the coffee shop. And her identity was pretty straightforward. First she was a woman of faith, a woman of God. Then she was a mother, a fresh pasta maker, and her job was important to her, but it was very much a means to an end. And then my generation I'm probably smack in the middle of the millennial generation, we were raised with certain scripts that jobs should be callings. Jobs should be something that you can find, that you can do what you love. And so I think a lot of people among my peer group have been searching for work as a means of self actualization, as a way to make themselves whole, and looking for a vocational soulmate that can deliver on that promise. And I think it actually sets us up for a lot of disappointment.
So this is a phenomena that you've described as workism. How would you define workism?
Yeah. So workism is a term that was originally coined by a colleague of mine named Derek Thompson, who's a journalist for The Atlantic. And the idea is that work has become akin to a religious identity. It's something that people look to not just for a paycheck, but for a community, a source of purpose and meaning and a way of making a difference in the world. And this can be a good or bad thing, depending on sort of what stage you are in life and how diverse your meaning making and identity portfolios are. But the danger of workism is a fewfold. The first is when you have a work centric existence, you can neglect other aspects of who you are. The psychologist Esther Perrell has this great phrase that she says, too many of us bring the best of ourselves to work and then bring the leftovers home. A job is not something that is always in your control. This is something that we have very much seen recently with the pandemic and furloughs and people losing their jobs for one reason or another. If your job is your sole source of community, is your sole source of identity, and you lose that job, it can really send you for an existential loop.
So this idea of workism is so.
Powerful nowadays, but you've argued that this.
Is like a recent phenomenon. Talk about some of the historic trends that got us here.
So if you think about the history of the United States, capitalism and the Protestant work ethic are really the two strands that entwine to form our country's DNA. So you can sort of trace a line from those early days of our country foundation to our current culture, where what do you do? Is often the first question people ask each other when they meet. But there are also some of these social and economic and political and cultural trends that are more recent that has made workism particularly apparent in the last, say, 50 years in the US. For the majority of the 20th century, the average working time was declining for all workers in developed countries. This makes sense as countries and individuals become more wealthy they can afford to work less. But as the 20th century progressed, the technological trends and innovation continued, but certain subsets of Americans started working more than ever. And so the question is why? How have our pure nations continued to decline the average time they spend working while some Americans are working more than ever? So there's no sort of single explanation. There are many different possible ways to slice it. One is the decline of other sources of meaning and identity in people's lives. So if you think about things like organized religion at the peak of religiosity in the United States in 1950s, over nine out of every ten Americans associated with some sort of organized religion. But in the last 30 years, you've seen a precipitous decline where now almost one in three Americans do not affiliate with a religion. And so now the role that religion once had in our lives is no longer there for a lot of people. But the desire for belonging, for community, for a sense of purpose larger than themselves still exists. So that's one explanation. Another is just the way that our political system is set up in the United States. One of the reasons why our relationship to work is so fraught is because the consequences of losing work in the US. Is so dire. When health care, for example, is often tied to people's full time jobs, the last thing that I'd like to call out is the kind of cultural factors. And so in the US. In particular, we have this very individualistic society where we've idolized businesses and CEOs have become celebrities, and we sort of valorize these side hustles and side grinds. And work is one part and parcel with our identities.
And a lot of this is getting even worse as so many of us are working from home now or engaging in hybrid work. This idea that the culture is telling us work is our sacred duty, it becomes even harder to separate yourself from that sacred duty when the sacred duty is all around you all the time. Right.
Part of the problem when you frame work as a sacred duty or a sacrifice is that the more you sacrifice for your job, the holier your work becomes. And so those long hours are further idolized and seen as something to pat workers on the back as opposed to viewing them as problems or things that deserve structural interventions.
This is the time of year that we get so focused on our jobs both how we can do better in our jobs. What productivity app could we download to do better or even rethinking whether or not we have the right relationship with our jobs?
But often we don't turn to our inner value system to really think about.
What we should be doing.
Why is that a problem?
A job is just one part of who we are, but not the entirety of our lives. And I think if we are solely looking through the lens of our professional lives to determine our well being. It's easy to neglect those other aspects of ourselves, and it's easy to mistake a job or professional success as this silver bullet that will make the rest of our lives fall in place. I can't tell you how many people I interviewed for the book who have achieved levels of personal success and have still felt unfulfilled. And so one piece of advice that I might give as you think about your goal setting and your resolutions and what the next year might bring is what are some ways that you can invest in the other aspects? Of your life, whether it's your relationships, whether it's your inner spiritual life, whether it's your family or your hobbies or your means of feeling whole outside of work, that also could use a little bit more love and attention in this next year.
We usually assume that having careers that give us meaning is a good thing, that being passionate about our jobs is something to strive for. But when we get back from the break, we'll see that there are some real downsides to thinking about our jobs as the most meaningful part of our lives. We'll hear about some of these surprising psychological costs when The Happiness Lab returns in a moment. Author Simone Stalzoff has written an entire book about the psychological costs of investing too much in your work. But he also experienced the pain that comes from those costs personally. When he made the hard decision a few years ago to abandon his career.
As a journalist, I felt guilty. I felt that I was sort of abandoning a calling and democracy dies in darkness, and what am I doing turning off one more light in the room? And will my colleagues and my coworkers ever forgive me? Will I ever be able to publish ever again? And I think that black and white thinking can be really damaging to people when they think that their jobs and their career decisions take such a taxing toll on themselves and their identities that it begins to spill into their life outside of work as well.
And it's not just the idea of guilt and sort of experiencing guilt even when you stick with your job. There are high rates of things like burnout and stress, too, right?
Yeah. I mean, I think this is particularly true in jobs that are a reflection of your identity. I'll speak to journalism just because it's the field that I know best. Your worth and your self worth are directly tied to your output in a lot of the ways. I used to obsessively check the reader numbers on the articles I would publish to see the impact or see the difference that I was making. But when you rise and fall with your output and your productivity, it can be very precarious. It can put you on an emotional roller coaster. It can keep you from being able to set boundaries around when you are and you're not working. And in a very individualistic culture, it can push people to the point where they're not actually being more productive, they're not actually being the effective workers that they want to be. But they're sort of caught in this loop where the lack of productivity pushes them to work even further, which pushes them to be less productive and ultimately drives people to burnout.
And that burnout also comes with physical consequences too like consequences for your body certainly.
I love the example of being able to rest before you need it. Because often what happens is we sort of push the buck down the road and we think, okay, I'll rest. Once I finish this last article, once I finish this last report, once I make this title or make this bonus at the end of the year. But what happens when we burn out is then we can't work at all. It's this sort of mental game that we play with ourselves that okay when this happens then I'll be able to rest. When in fact having a more sustainable balanced approach to productivity to work is actually what makes us more productive and effective workers in the long term.
It also makes us better humans and better social companions too. Talk a little bit about the social costs of overwork and having your identity be too kind of infused with your job.
I think one really important thing to remember is that a work centric existence doesn't just take our best time but it often takes our best energy too. And similar to an investor who might want to diversify the sources of their investments to be more resilient to have a more balanced portfolio we too benefit when we have a diversified identity when we have distinct sources of meaning in our life. But if we're spending all of our time working if we're spending all of our energy focused on our professional goals we can neglect these other aspects of who we are. And so in thinking about that I really advise people to do two things. One is to make sure that they're carving out time and space in order to focus on non work pursuits and the second is to act to actively do things. There's this phrase that I love from the Alcoholics Anonymous literature and to paraphrase it's that we can't think ourselves into better action but we can act ourselves into better ways of thinking. And so if we want to diversify our identity if we want to diversify the sources of meaning in our life we actively have to do things that reinforce that identity through our actions and also through the social communities that we create around them.
Another problem with taking action to kind of diversify our senses of meaning and I've experienced this myself is that you kind of wind up in this interesting chicken and egg problem right? So you start working all the time, and then you're kind of exhausted in the you don't know what to do when you're not working or you haven't invested in the friendships or the kind of activities that you do outside of work. And then you don't know what to do when you're out of work. So then you just work some more, and then the cycle gets worse and worse, like, to the point that we almost don't even know who we are when we're not working.
Yeah, I mean, it's so relatable those days where you're just exhausted and all you want to do is turn on Netflix because it feels like all your brain has the capacity to do in that moment. And nothing against Netflix, it can be a great way to turn the brain off, but it's through those active forms of recreation and leisure that we're able to really derive more meaning from our non work pursuits.
And this is something that you've talked about in terms of taking a more active role in the kinds of things we value so that we're not just like inheriting the life values that exist around us or that come from our job, but it's like figuring out the things that give us value outside of our productivity.
100% after over two years of reporting and talking to so many individuals, I think that work is just one container in our lives. It's obviously a container for the work that we do. It's a container for an identity. It comes with a certain value system of what the workplace measures or values, and it can be a great source of meaning and identity and purpose, but I think it's dangerous when it's the only one.
So one of the solutions you've come up with this is the idea of this good enough job. So what is a good enough job? And how does it help us kind of protect our values from getting too caught up in work?
Put simply, a good enough job is a job that allows you to be the person you want to be. What I like about the framework is that it's subjective. Maybe it's a certain amount of income, maybe it's a certain job title. Maybe it's a job in a certain industry or a job that gets off at a certain hour that lets you pick up your kids from school. Whatever good enough is to you, I urge you to recognize once you have it, because then you can convert some of that energy that you might be spending questioning, oh, is this the perfect job? Is this the dream job? Is this my vocational soulmate? Into two things. One, an appreciation for the role work plays in your life. First and foremost, that it allows you to live. And second, into your life outside of work and ways in which you might be able to invest in yourself, in your relationships, in your community. That can also be a source of identity and meaning for you.
Simone's advice of downsizing to a good enough job and investing more energy in your relationships, health, and community may sound like an amazing idea in principle, but in practice, renegotiating a healthier relationship with your job can be hard, especially when you've been caught up in that culture of workism for a long time. So when we get back from the break, we'll learn about some specific practices we can all use to reevaluate the role that our career plays in our lives. We'll see that there are strategies that every one of us can use to better align our values with our identities, both inside and outside of the office. The Happiness Lab will be right back overwork. Expert Simone Stalzoff thinks that many of us would be happier if we took some concrete steps towards reevaluating the role that work plays in our lives. And the first step he recommends involves being more intentional about how we use the time we spend away from our jobs.
I think the idea of setting up non work time is trying to create infrastructure around our non work time as a religious institution might create infrastructure around worship or prayer. One of the benefits of, say, going to a yoga class or going on a run is there are activities that structurally prevent us from working. I think a lot of times the pieces of anti burnout advice that we hear like, set a boundary. The problem with it is that personal interventions inevitably break. I definitely felt this even in the writing of the book. I was writing a book about how to sort of right size worksplace in our life and develop a healthier relationship to work. And yet the looming deadline of trying to get the manuscript done pushed me to open up the laptop on the weekends when I vowed that I wouldn't be working at all. And so the idea of kind of setting up this intentional space is really to make sure that we have this sacred space, this sacred time, in order to do things other than work. One small anecdote from one of the psychologists that I interviewed often what she sees when she suggests practices like setting up intentional space for non work activities is that they want to sign up for a marathon or for an Iron Man, or to try and turn their leisure into another form of work. And what she often advises them is to start small, like, how about a jog? And I think that piece of advice is really resonant. Instead of having to think about, okay, what do I want this identity of mine to be? And what is my six month plan for achieving it? Just start by taking small steps, and.
This gets to another practice. You you strongly suggest in the book, which is this idea that we have to get out of the optimization mindset. Generally, all the patterns we experience in work wind up getting us to optimize every single second. And it can be easy to start to try to do the exact same thing when we're dealing with our leisure. But the whole idea is to kind of move our self worth away from being productive even when it comes to our leisure.
Yeah, I think one great antidote to people who have a natural tendency to optimize is something you've talked about a lot on the podcast already, which is the value of play. And one thing that I like about play is that it's grounded not in future achievement or success, but present moment awareness and whether that play is jamming. If you like to play music or dancing if you like to dance or free writing if you like to write or playing a board game or doing something that isn't a means to another end but actually is an end, in and of itself, is a great way to serve as a counterbalance to our natural tendency to try and find the productivity of every moment of our day.
And this connects to another practice you've really suggested, which is this idea of if we're investing in the jamming or the dancing and so on, we also are just generally investing in multiple different kinds of identities.
Have you also tried to invest in.
Multiple different non work identities? How's that gone for you, especially as you've been busy writing the book and so on?
Yeah, so as I mentioned, I think work really can function as a container. But I think the value investing in other containers is that they help us as individuals see that our purpose on this earth is not just to produce economic value. So, for example, one way that I have diversified my own identity is I play on an ultimate Frisbee team. I know I'm not doing much to dispel the Lanky, California stereotype here, but one thing that I really appreciate about the team is that on the team, people don't care about the last performance review or how many pages or words I've written that day. My identity on the team is completely decoupled from my identity as a worker. And that can be a really generative space for me to be able to inhabit where the goals of our team are not tied to our economic output. I have to show up as someone who plays my particular position and supports my teammates, but they're not asking me about sort of the things that might be sources of stress or anxiety throughout the day. And I think the more of these containers that we have in our lives, the more well rounded we are, the more resilient we are in the face of adversity and ultimately, the more developed we are in the multiple interests each of us have.
The final practice you suggest is a bit more reflective. It's this idea of defining what we want our work to be because we're not usually the ones that get to define that, right? Talk about where that definition usually comes from.
For many of us, unless we define for ourselves what we want our relationship to work to be, our employer will happily do it for us. And so one of the benefits of putting a stake in the ground and saying, okay, this is what I want my relationship to work to be, is it allows us to fall back on those values. It allows us to really understand who we are outside of work and how work can serve our vision of a life well lived, as opposed to being the central axis around which the rest of our life orbits.
And so part of the goal of the book is to kind of help you put all of these different tips into practice yourself. And even though I'm sure it's pretty hard, I'm curious if kind of adopting all of these strategies has helped you. You know, even in the context of writing a book, which is pretty hard and pretty kind of productivity focused activity.
It'S an interesting place to be in now because I finished the book, there are no more words left to be written, and it feels bittersweet. I am letting go of this project that I've tinkered with for more than two years and had something to be an anchor for my attention as I go through my working days. And now I have to eat some of my own dog food. I have to practice what I preach by trying to find other sources of identity and meaning outside of the dopamine hit that I get when I reach my self imposed goals. And one other big change that I made recently is I started working for myself. And it's a really interesting moment for me personally, where now I no longer have that employer prioritizing my weeks. I no longer have a manager telling me, okay, this is what's important for you to be working on, and I have to do some of that work myself. And part of that means knowing when to stop. Because as I'm sure any freelancer, someone who has done a personal project knows there is an infinite capacity of more work that we can do. One of my mentors and someone that I interviewed for the book is this religious scholar named Casper Jacill. And every Friday at the end of the week, he sends out the same tweet, which is a great source of inspiration for me. And every Friday he says, the work is not done, but it is time to stop. And that is sort of a personal mantra that I've adopted in my own life. And I hope that you might too.
I hope my chat with Simone has convinced you that it may be time to listen to what your inner voice is telling you about work in the New year. As Simone Eloquently put it in his book, our desks were never meant to be our. Altars. I share his hope that with the right strategies, we can all begin to develop a healthier relationship with what we do for a living. So if what you heard in this episode hit a nerve, you can start by just gently asking some questions about the identity you get from your job. Are you treating your career as a kind of moral good in ways that leave you overstressed, over, tired, and burned out? Is your busyness at work covering up a deeper sense of emptiness with what you do outside the office? If so, maybe this is a year to start renegotiating the role that work plays in your life. Maybe this is the year to get more intentional about the effort and energy you give to your nonwork pursuits. You, too, can take the steps needed to deprioritize work a little in order to prioritize life. Next week, we'll continue our quest to hear what our wise inner voices may be telling us. And we'll do that by finding ways to intentionally seek out something that many of us have been missing out on silence. We'll hear why. Quieting? Our mental and environmental noise can be so essential for our well being, and we'll learn some practical steps we can all take to get there, even in an ever louder world. So I hope you'll join me next week for the final installment of this special New Year season of The Happiness Lab. With me, Dr. Laurie Santos. The Happiness Lab is co written by Ryan Dilly and is produced by Ryan Dilly and Courtney Guerino. The show was mastered by Evan Viola, and our original music was composed by Zachary Silver. Special thanks to Shane Beard, Greta Cohn, Nicole Morano, Morgan Ratner, Maggie Taylor, Jacob Weisberg, my agent Ben Davis, and the rest of the pushkin team. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and by me, Dr. Laurie Santos.