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Notes on Happiness, 2006

It’s been almost a year since I last wrote about happiness (and the clarification).

Now seems like a good time to write a little more.  I came across something about burnout on slashdot (and the linked nymag article).  Interesting stuff.

One excerpt of note is the statement, “… happiness equals reality divided by expectations.”  Which is a corny way of saying what Bertrand Russell said a long time ago — Unhappiness stems from a misunderstanding of reality.

Of course it’s easy for the pessimist to misinterpret both statements.  They might reply, “well, then, I’ll expect absolute shit so that I won’t be disappointed.”  Which is not the implication at all (I can’t imagine that happiness equaling a divide-by-zero error is a good thing).  Not to mention, someone who makes a statement like that is already bitter, disappointed and most likely they thrive on it.  Anyway, what the receiver of this advice is challenged to do is to not have irrational or outlandish expectations.  Unfortunately, people who hold such expectations obviously don’t view them as irrational or outlandish, otherwise (one would hope) they wouldn’t seriously hold them.

The article really caught my attention because it highlighted something I’d been struggling with — burnout at work is not caused by workload.  Not necessarily, anyway.  Don’t get me wrong.  My workload can (and often does) get crazy and is a source of stress.  On the other hand, I am quite happy in general.  I think I’ve sustained this level of moderate, even-keeled happiness for a long time now.  At least a year.  Probably more like 2.  I’m not sure exactly what has changed.  Perhaps it’s due to a number of things — transplanting myself to Minnesota (could have been anywhere, really, and from anywhere) and living entirely on my own for a long time (three years now?) among them.  A change of environment worked wonders for my state of mind.  This was actually an interesting point of debate between Jason and myself, though I’m not entirely sure whether that debate occurred on the phone or on this blog.  I’ve also had some relatively even-tempered relationships in the past few years — much in contrast to a few volatile, tumultuous relationships I had while in the southwest.

On the other hand, I do lead a very solitary life.  Sure, I’ll hang out with friends on weekends.  Work permitting, I’ll enter bar poker tournaments during the week.  Overall, though, I spend my time at work and at home.  Honestly, I’m usually just too tired to do much of anything during the week.

A solitary life is apparently a cause of burnout, simply because there are fewer outlets for an individual.  Luckily, I do things to fill in those gaps — I play online poker, video games, etc.  Still, it’s a major factor.

I learned that quite dramatically the last time I visited Las Cruces.  Just spending a week with family and friends did wonders for me.  My chest pains went away entirely, and did not return until several weeks after I returned.  I felt refreshed when I got back.  Interestingly, my mood (by my perception, anyway) didn’t change much — I was happy before, during and after the vacation.  There were only three things that changed — I was in a different geographical location, I was with family & friends and I wasn’t working.

It’d be a mistake, I think, to emphasize any of those factors too much over each other.  To wit — I like my job.  The culture at my company is great.  I’d turn down a substantial increase in salary from another company with a significantly different culture.  Really.  That’s not to say that it isn’t a source of stress — of course it is.  I took on a new role in the last several months, and the company has been reorganized.  No matter how well it all works out in the end, that’s gonna cause stress and frustration (for example, when being informed that our group would get a new boss — the third in about as many months — one co-worker asked, “And who will be our boss next week?”  Luckily, our company’s culture thrives on such honest yet sarcastic commentary).

Likewise, geographical location shouldn’t be overvalued — sure, the weather is great down there.  But that visit was in late summer, so there’s not as much dramatic difference between there and here as there is, say, in the wintertime.

Family and friends?  Of course that’s a significant factor.  But I’ve got plenty of family and friends here, too.  Granted, they are different family and friends, but on a purely detached, psychological level, family & friends are family & friends.  Hell, watching a favorite sitcom has similar psychological effects as spending time with friends (no pun intended — indeed, I must enthusiastically deny that pun because I never much liked that show).

I think, personally, that my main cause of burnout is too much routine.

On one hand, routine is good.  Successful people stick to routines (if you believe what some books would have you believe, anyway).  I read something about a study showing that people who eat the same food on a regular basis enjoy their food more, counterintuitive as that may seem.  I’m the kind of person, though, who goes in streaks.  When I was an adolescent and teenager, I was obsessed with magic.  Slight of hand, etc.  I got really good at it too.  Unfortunately (though fortunately for my sex life), I eventually burned out on it.  I’ve returned to it every few years, if briefly.  I was into collectible card games as a young adult.  I never returned to that, but I do play poker now, and get much enjoyment from it (as much as I may criticize some of the more annoying personalities who are attracted to the game — poker is interesting in that it lays bare peoples’ personalities, and it’s not always pretty).  I’ve done the same with video games.  Programming too.  My interest in philosophy (and the like) follows a similar course, though not to the same degree — philosophy can be, in one sense, not so much an activity as it is a disposition.  Nevertheless, with all these things I have periods of intense interest followed by periods of diminished, though not extinguished, interest.  And yes, I do the same thing with varieties of food.

In short, I like to shake things up a little.  Not to the extreme of some people who need constant novel stimulation, but over a relatively long-term period.

That’s a long-winded way of saying, “Breaks are good.”  However, I think it is helpful to understand and examine the details.

Another major cause of burnout, for myself anyway, is uncertainty.  Whether it’s about a job (re-org madness), financial problems, personal conflicts, etc.

Too much routine mixed (paradoxically, almost) with uncertainty can cause anyone to burn out.

Am I burned out?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  One thing that’s helped is that we’ve recently hired another programmer for my team.  At least now I can concentrate on the more pressing matters.

Regardless, I have a lot of the symptoms.  Sleeping problems (though that’s not unusual for me), easily getting frustrated, etc. have plagued me.  Believe me, I’m no fun to talk to after work.  I need that decompression period.  I’m not angry or mean.  I just don’t want to talk.  I can occasionally be talked into an after-work beer, and that sometimes loosens me up.  As a rule, though, I like to go straight home and either read (usually on the web) or play video games or poker.

Anyway, I’ll be visiting Las Cruces again very soon.  And believe me, I’m looking forward to it.

One Response to “Notes on Happiness, 2006”

  1. erin Says:

    Yeah, those Southwestern gals are completely insane. I mean what loony-tunes…oh…wait…HEY!

    I’m glad you’ve got such a good concept on what’s adding to/subtracting from your burnout/happiness. I sincerely believe that it’s a very good thing to do such in depth analysis of oneself from time to time. Otherwise, you know what happens don’t you? Bloated zombie office drones are born. Eeeuuuggh….

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