Tag Archives: Harvard Business School

Happy Holidays! Well, maybe…

 

As the greeting “Happy Holidays” hits your ears over and over during the holiday season, doesn’t it raise a question or two?

At a time when greed and acquisitiveness appear to be boundless, at least among certain segments of the American population, the most relevant questions seem to be:

  • Does money buy happiness?
  • If not, what does?

These questions have been the subject of countless studies.  Let’s review a few of the answers they’ve come up with.

To begin, exactly what is it that makes us “happy”?

A couple of articles published in the past two years in The Wall Street Journal—a publication certainly focused on the acquisition of money—summarized some results.

Wealth alone doesn’t guarantee a good life.  According to the Journal, what matters a lot more than a big income is how people spend it.  For instance, giving money away makes people much happier than spending it on themselves.  But when they do spend it on themselves, they’re a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel rather than material goods.

The Journal looked at a study by Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, which found that people may at first think material purchases offer better value for their money because they’re tangible and they last longer, while experiences are fleeting.  But Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.  We even get more pleasure out of anticipating experiences than we do from anticipating the acquisition of material things.

Another psychology professor, Thomas Gilovich at Cornell, reached similar conclusions.  He found that people make a rational calculation:  “I can either go there, or I can have this.  Going there may be great, but it’ll be over fast.  But if I buy something, I’ll always have it.”  According to Gilovich, that’s factually true, but not psychologically true, because we “adapt to our material goods.”

We “adapt” to our material goods?  How?  Psychologists like Gilovich talk about “hedonic adaptation.”  Buying a new coat or a new car may provide a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.  Experiences, on the other hand, meet more of our “underlying psychological needs.”

Why?  Because they’re often shared with others, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity.  You also don’t feel that you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses quite so much.  While it may bother you when you compare your material things to others’ things, comparing your vacation to someone else’s won’t bug you as much because “you still have your own experiences and your own memories.”

Another article in the Journal, published in 2015, focused on the findings of economists rather than psychologists.  A group of economists like John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia, concluded that happiness—overall well-being–should not be measured by how much money we have by using metrics like per-capita income and gross domestic product (GDP).  “GDP is not even a very good measure of economic well-being,” he said.

Instead, the World Happiness Report, which Helliwell co-authored, ranked countries based on how people viewed the quality of their lives. It noted that six factors account for 75 percent of the differences between countries.  The six factors:  GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.  Although GDP and life expectancy relate directly to income, the other four factors reflect a sense of security, trust, and autonomy.  So although the U.S. ranked first in overall GDP, it ranked only 15th in happiness because it was weaker in the other five variables.

According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia and co-author of the World Happiness Report, incomes in the U.S. have risen, but the country’s sense of “social cohesion” has declined.  The biggest factor contributing to this result is “distrust.”  Although the U.S. is very rich, we’re not getting the benefits of all this affluence.

If you ask people whether they can trust other people, Sachs said, “the American answer has been in significant decline.”   Forward to 2017.  Today, when many of our political leaders shamelessly lie to us, our trust in others has no doubt eroded even further.

Even life expectancy is going downhill in the U.S.  According to the AP, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing for decades, but 2016 marked the first time in more than a half-century that it fell in two consecutive years.

Let’s return to our original question:  whether money can buy happiness.  The most recent research I’ve come across is a study done at Harvard Business School, noted in the November-December 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine.  Led by assistant professor of business administration Ashley Whillans, it found that, in developed countries, people who trade money for time—by choosing to live closer to work, or to hire a housecleaner, for example–are happier. This was true across the socioeconomic spectrum.

According to Whillans, extensive research elsewhere has confirmed the positive emotional effects of taking vacations and going to the movies.  But the Harvard researchers wanted to explore a new ideawhether buying ourselves out of negative experiences was another pathway to happiness.

Guess what:  it was.  One thing researchers focused on was “time stress” and how it affects happiness.  They knew that higher-earners feel that every hour of their time is financially valuable.  Like most things viewed as valuable, time is also perceived as scarce, and that scarcity translates into time stress, which can easily contribute to unhappiness.

The Harvard team surveyed U.S., Canadian, Danish, and Dutch residents, ranging from those who earned $30,000 a year to middle-class earners and millionaires. Canadian participants were given a sum of money—half to spend on a service that would save one to two hours, and half to spend on a material purchase like clothing or jewelry.  Participants who made a time-saving purchase (like buying take-out food) were more likely to report positive feelings, and less likely to report feelings of time stress, than they did after their shopping sprees.

Whillans noted that in both Canada and the U.S., where busyness is “often flaunted as a status symbol,” opting for outsourcing jobs like cooking and cleaning can be culturally challenging.  Why?  Because people like to pretend they can do it all.  Women in particular find themselves stuck in this situation.  They have more educational opportunities and are likely to be making more money and holding more high-powered jobs, but their happiness is not increasing commensurately.

The Harvard team wants to explore this in the future.  According to Whillans, the initial evidence shows that among couples who buy time, “both men and women feel less pulled between the demands of work and home life,” and that has a positive effect on their relationship.  She hopes that her research will ameliorate some of the guilt both women and men may feel about paying a housekeeper or hiring someone to mow the law—or ordering Chinese take-out on Thursday nights.

Gee, Ashley, I’ve never felt guilty about doing any of that.  Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a pretty happy person.

How about you?

Whatever your answer may be, I’ll join the throng and wish you HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

 

 

 

 

Random Thoughts

On truthfulness

Does it bother you when someone lies to you?  It bothers me.  And I just learned astonishing new information about people who repeatedly tell lies.

According to British neuroscientists, brain scans of the amygdala—the area in the brain that responds to unpleasant emotional experiences—show that the brain becomes desensitized with each successive lie.

In other words, the more someone lies, the less that person’s brain reacts to it.  And the easier it is for him or her to lie the next time.

These researchers concluded that “little white lies,” usually considered harmless, really aren’t harmless at all because they can lead to big fat falsehoods.  “What begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

This study seems terribly relevant right now.  Our political leaders (one in particular, along with some of his cohorts) have often been caught telling lies.   When these leaders set out on a course of telling lies, watch out.  They’re likely to keep doing it.  And it doesn’t bother them a bit.

Let’s hope our free press remains truly free, ferrets out the lies that impact our lives, and points them out to the rest of us whenever they can.

[This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and noted in the January-February 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.]

 

On language

When did “waiting for” become “waiting on”?

Am I the only English-speaking person who still says “waiting for”?

I’ve been speaking English my entire life, and the phrase “waiting on” has always meant what waiters or waitresses did.  Likewise, salesclerks in a store.  They “waited on” you.

“Waiting for” was an entirely different act.   In a restaurant, you—the patron—decide to order something from the menu.  Then you begin “waiting for” it to arrive.

Similarly:  Even though you’re ready to go somewhere, don’t you sometimes have to “wait for” someone before you can leave?

Here are three titles you may have come across.  First, did you ever hear of the 1935 Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty”?  (Although it isn’t performed a lot these days, it recently appeared on stage in the Bay Area.)  In Odets’s play, a group of cabdrivers “wait for” someone named Lefty to arrive.  While they wait for him, they debate whether they should go on strike.

Even better known, Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is still alive and well and being performed almost everywhere.  [You can read a little bit about this play—and the two pronunciations of “Godot”—in my blog post, “Crawling through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland,” published in April 2016.]  The lead characters in the play are forever waiting for “Godot,” usually acknowledged as a substitute for “God,” who never shows up.

A more recent example is the 1997 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”  The cast of a small-town theater group anxiously waits for a Broadway producer named Guffman to appear, hoping that he’ll like their show.  Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the film, were pretty clearly referring to “Waiting for Godot” when they wrote it.

Can anyone imagine replacing Waiting for” in these titles with “Waiting on”?

C’mon!

Yet everywhere I go, I constantly hear people say that they’re “waiting on” a friend to show up or “waiting on” something to happen.

This usage has even pervaded Harvard Magazine.  In a recent issue, an article penned by an undergraduate included this language:  “[T]hey aren’t waiting on the dean…to make the changes they want to see.”

Hey, undergrad, I’m not breathlessly waiting for your next piece of writing!  Why?  Because you should have said “waiting for”!

Like many of the changes in English usage I’ve witnessed in recent years, this one sounds very wrong to me.

 

Have you heard this one?

Thanks to scholars at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School, I’ve just learned that workers who tell jokes—even bad ones—can boost their chances of being viewed by their co-workers as more confident and more competent.

Joking is a form of humor, and humor is often seen as a sign of intelligence and a good way to get ideas across to others.  But delivering a joke well also demands sensitivity and some regard for the listeners’ emotions.

The researchers, who ran experiments involving 2,300 participants, were trying to gauge responses to joke-tellers. They specifically wanted to assess the impact of joking on an individual’s status at work.

In one example, participants had to rate individuals who explained a service that removed pet waste from customers’ yards.  This example seems ripe for joke-telling, and sure enough, someone made a joke about it.

Result?  The person who told the joke was rated as more competent and higher in status than those who didn’t.

In another example, job-seekers were asked to suggest a creative use for an old tire.  One of them joked, “Someone doing CrossFit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.”  This participant was rated higher in status than two others, who either made an inappropriate joke about a condom or made a serious suggestion (“Make a tire swing out of it.”).

So jokes work—but only if they’re appropriate.

Even jokes that fell flat led participants to rate a joke-teller as highly confident.  But inappropriate or insensitive jokes don’t do a joke-teller any favors because they can have a negative impact.

Common sense tells me that the results of this study also apply in a social setting.  Telling jokes to your friends is almost always a good way to enhance your relationship—as long as you avoid offensive and insensitive jokes.

The take-away:  If you can tell an appropriate joke to your colleagues and friends, they’re likely to see you as confident and competent.

So next time you need to explain something to others, in your workplace or in any another setting, try getting out one of those dusty old joke books and start searching for just the right joke.

[This study, reported in The Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2017, and revisited in the same publication a week later, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]