A Work of Worry and Hope
All activity demands two forms of projection from us: intention and endowment. Picture someone pushing a large empty barrel up a hill. At each step a mechanism fills the barrel with an increasing amount of water. If the person were to stop, the water would cease flowing but the barrel wouldn’t reach the goal. Consider intention as the desire to reach that goal, with endowment (the water) being increased by each step. As the weight increases so does the closeness of the goal and with it the desire to achieve.
Kahneman (1991) has described the “Endowment Effect” in its connection to human activity. We’ll sit through a terrible movie even if we want to leave after a few minutes precisely because of the weight attached to the money exchanged to sit there. At a basic level, this makes rational sense, we want to “get our money’s worth,” as the saying goes. However, endowment is controlled in no small part by the intent of the person, guided through their perception of cost. The more an action is endowed with meaning, the more costly it becomes to stop it. This is, incidentally, how online games and gambling get people hooked. A small amount of money quickly becomes a large amount and with it an increasing inability to rationally consider the relationship between cost and benefit.
If a small amount of money has the power to continue our investment past the point of personal harm, how much more will we put up with if the money in question is how we pay our bills and provide for ourselves and/or families? Consider that:
“According to a 2015 Work-Life Survey by the American Psychological Association, 37 percent of Americans report regularly experiencing significant stress on the job. With the same study showing that 48 percent of Americans report that they regularly respond to work communications after normal office hours, that job stress is increasingly bleeding into personal time” (Meyers)
Work, as it takes up a sizable portion of our lives, provides a large reservoir for the powers of intention and endowment. Whether the goal is retirement, simply getting through the day, paying bills or pursuing a career choice that an investment in education provided, the resources of Time, Money and Intent/Willpower have turned on the endowment spigot to fill that barrel up fast.
“Employees increasingly feel the pressure to be reachable by multiple means, including email, cell phone, voice mail and text, confirms Cristi Thielman, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Seattle. In fact, in some organizations, employees feel the need to use constant connectivity as leverage to ensure job survival, says Thielman, who draws half of her client base from EAP referrals” (Meyers)
This diffusion of work into every corner of our lives brings with it the feeling of being a commodity, an object by which the company or organization reaches its goals, not our own. Stress becomes not simply something that occurs in the workplace, but a constant companion in our home-life. As when moving an increasingly larger weight, the focus of our minds become ever more narrowed in making the next step, ignoring or stepping over any other way we could have expressed ourselves.
As Erich Fromm (1968) puts it, we have exchanged being with having:
“Many people easily confuse the identify of ego with the identity of ‘I’ or self. The difference is fundamental and unmistakable. The experience of ego, and of ego-identity, is based on the concept of having. I have ‘me’ as I have all other things which this ‘me’ owns. Identity of ‘I’ or self refers to the category of being and not of having. I am ‘I’ only to the extent to which I am alive, interested, related, active, and to which I have achieved an integration between my appearance – to others and/or to myself – and the core of my personality.”
The great error of the seeping workplace is not that work itself is a problem, nor that there isn’t good rationale in pursuing careers that pay bills. No, the error lies not in working, but in the slow creep of one area of our life coming to encompass the whole. Just as one idea cannot define the entirety of a person, so then we are each far more than any one identity.
The hope of our lives is found within the integration of our various activities, in the pursuit of ever more deeply held relational bonds. “It is expressed in the demand that life must rule over things and man over machines, that all social arrangements must have one aim – the growth of man with all his potentialities, the affirmation of life in all its forms against death and mechanization and alienation” (Fromm).
© David Teachout
Fromm, E. (1968). The revolution of hope toward A Humanized technology. United States: Joanna Cotler Books.
Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), 193–206. doi:10.1257/jep.5.1.193
Meyers, Laurie. Worrying for A Living. Counseling Today. January 2016