Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Satisfaction Gap -- Notes from Mexico City

I am sitting in the Mexico City airport tonight waiting for a plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil -- a 10 hour all-night flight into a unique culture, one famed for white sands, year-round sunshine, samba, parties, sensuous people, and, of course, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro which is a metaphor for "party." Regrettably, or perhaps not, my job has nothing to do with any of these, but rather, to discuss what is important at work and in life, what works and what doesn´t with a group of managers -- not to tell them, but to ask them, and then to try and make some sense together of their answers and to put those answers to use in service to themselves and others.

What answers? The answers that appear on every survey regardless of culture.
If asked, "What is most important to you in life?" or "What brings you the greatest joy or happiness in life?" the answers, regardless where you ask the questions, are family, friends, pursuits that involve family and friends, and altruistic efforts, that is, being in service to others. I do not anticipate the managers in Brazil will answer differently.

So why the dramatic difference in life satisfaction among cultures and among individuals? If most of us agree on what is important, what makes us happy, what satisfies us, then why aren´t we closer in our relative satisfaction with life? The answer is the difference between what we believe is important and the way we live our lives. The gaps, the inconsistencies, are what we feel as dissatisfaction.

For example, is it consistent to say on the one hand "my family is most important thing in the world to me" if we spend more time at work than we do at home with those people? It is consistent to live lives pursuing money, fame, and power knowing that it is altruism -- helping others -- that is the ticket to success, if success just another word for happiness?

Is it consistent to say friends and family are most important to us if we do not take all of our vacation every year? In a nation that already gets and takes less vacation than nearly all industrialized nations, it is ironic that at the start of summer 2006 nearly 60% of all American workers said they had no plans to take a vacation in the following six months. Only 40% planned to take a vacation at all -- the lowest percentage in 28 years. And even more telling is the fact that many American workers are not even taking the meagre vacations they are offered for fear of "falling behind" or not being considered "dedicated," or of not "making it," most commonly a euphemism for making more money.

Is it really surprising that we are not happier? Is it surprising that with the most expensive health care system in the world more Americans than ever are keeling over from the ill effects of stress? Does it surprise us that the people most idolized in our society -- the super-rich -- are no more happy than most average folks, that 37% of a sample of the rich and famous were actually less happy than average folks -- that there is no difference between the long-term happiness of lottery winners and comparison samples of average people or even paraplegics?

Is a jaw-dropping fact that despite huge increases in affluence since 1950, people in American are less happy today than they were when the average house was less than 1,000 square feet? Does it stun anyone that the average 25 year old American today is three to ten times more likely to be suffering from major depression than the equivalent individual was 50 years ago? Does it blow our minds that a normal child in America today would be considered "mentally ill" by 1950´s standards using the same mental health questions?

It shouldn´t be surprising at all. The gaps are too obvious, too pronounced, and the more materialistic the society, the greater the gaps.

If Plato was right and the good life is the happy life then we are failing. Miserably. We are not looking in the right places for satisfaction -- not at work, not anywhere. We simply got it wrong. We bought what the advertisers are selling and we really believe that if we don´t have a television set that hangs on the wall that we are somehow less for it. The irritating fact is the lifestyles of the rich and famous are just that but they do not translate into long term satisfaction.

In the end, satisfaction can most easily be discovered by asking, answering, and resolving the answers to two simple questions: "What makes me happy/satisfied/content?" After writing down your answers, then ask this question: "Is the way I am living life consistent with my answers to the first question?" If you are like most of us, your answers are not consistent. Gaps exist and either have to be resolved or ignored, the latter leading nowhere but to where we are now -- not a criticism but an opportunity for introspection, an opportunity to do something about it, to bring them closer together. These questions lead to other questions like, "Am I doing what I want to do?", "Am I doing what I do where I want to do it?", "Am I doing what I want to do with the person I want to do it with?", "Why is it I want what I want?" And the questions and answers keep coming until one stops and asks, "If not, why not?" That question leads most to stop asking questions and a few to make changes.

One place to begin the inquiry is at work, that place most of us spend most of our time -- and so we shall soon in Sao Paulo.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Final Thoughts From the Cradle of Art, Culture, Fiction, and High-End Retail

2:35 a.m.
Friday, September 1, 2006

I am awake because my 3:30 a.m. wakeup call isn’t coming. I know. I spent a sleepless night last week chatting with the desk clerk downstairs and I know that he’s guzzling Bellinis and watching Spice television right now and can't be trusted with something as mundane as my wakeup call. What I also know is a wakeup call or not I have at least a hundred pounds of baggage to drag across the stairs of the Grand Canal, all in an effort to make a 6:15 morning flight to Amsterdam where the connection to Houston is impossibly short. But I digress. This is not about the perks of travel in modernity.

No, we’ll end this dark little trilogy on the subject it began – why the Italians aren’t happier. The first two reports from Venice generated much speculation from readers on why Italians, and more specifically, Venetians, are unhappy considering the beauty of their country not to mention their own physical attributes which don’t go unnoticed by even casual observers.

On reflection, it may be nothing more than the nasty realization that Venice is scheduled to sink to the center of the earth sometime in the next fifty years. That could, understandably, put one in a poor mood, but if that’s the ticket the Venetians are not letting on. A modest two bedroom apartment in an area of the city you cannot find with two maps and a GPS will still set you back at least $750,000 U.S. dollars. Something on the Grand Canal, well, those prices aren’t listed or even discussed. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it and the real estate vendors here don’t mind expressing that in a language you can understand. No, it doesn’t sound like the Venetians are factoring imminent and final destruction in their collective mood.

The inquiry still remains a mystery but not for lack of trying.

Perhaps the most thoughtful observation came from an experienced, sensitive VP of HR who knows more than a little about collective human behavior. He speculated:

“I've met very few ‘beautiful’ people who've been satisfied with their lives. Perhaps it is because, as individuals, we don't have any say in how the media and marketers define "beauty" and that is more pressure than most can bear who aren't well grounded otherwise. The happiest people I know are those with great friends and family who care for them regardless of how they look to the outside world. They tend not to take themselves so seriously because their circle of friends and family keep them grounded, ‘beautiful’ or not.”

I think he has a point and he either hit the bulls-eye or missed the wall on which the target is hanging. There are too many alternatives to know with the degree of certainty you could take to the Sports Book in Vegas. It occurs to me, for example, that the problem could be the Espresso-Pinot Grigio Cycle that is endemic in Venice –black as night Ethiopian coffee shots that can only be cut by full liters of high octane Pinot Grigio. The net result is you are either wound tighter than a violin string or you want to take a nap in the gutter. It is an ever-tightening spiral of addiction and it took me less than a week to qualify for rehab. I can only imagine what this habit might do to a collective psyche repeated over decades, but my guess is nothing good.

In the end, the endemic dissatisfaction, if any, is probably not about geography, beauty, or even addiction. Maybe it is something more fundamental that pervades more than Italy, one that explains why most in the world are becoming less content by the year. Maybe Hunter Thompson was right when he observed the key is “[to find] a way to live out there where the real winds blow, to sleep late, have fun . . . and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested."

Maybe that is the ticket.