You are only happy if you are free

In a book I am reading right now, called “The Psychology of Money” by Morgan Housel, there is a chapter on ‘Freedom’. In that, the author declares that the highest form of wealth is the ability to wake up and say, “I can do whatever I want today”. It is the privilege of having control over your time, in deciding how you spend your time. Simply put, the thing that makes us happiest (once our basic needs have been met) is freedom over our time.

Agnus Campbell, a psychologist at the University of Michigan wrote a book called ‘The Sense of Wellbeing in America’. The goal was to find out what makes people tick, what makes them happy. His conclusion in the book is that the thing that makes us happier than almost anything else is our ability to have control over our time, and by extension, how we structure and spend our lives. He states that, across all geographies, ages and socio-economic strata, “having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of wellbeing than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered.”

By all accounts, we earn money so we can be happy. But there is little direct correlation between money itself and happiness. It is the ability of money to give us freedom and control over our lives that makes money valuable – or at least, it should. Happiness does not directly come from the money we earn. It comes from the freedom money affords us. This is why we keep coming across so many studies on how money, beyond a certain level, has no impact on our happiness or well-being. You need a certain amount to be comfortable, and beyond that, earning money for the sake of money seems to bring people more misery than happiness (of course, there might be people who are happy just earning money for the sake of it, I’m not talking about them, if at all they exist).

Now if the ability to have free time and control over our time is what makes us happier than anything else, it comes as no surprise to me that my job (as a corporate lawyer), and really, a ton of other such high-paying, high-prestige jobs, didn’t bring me any happiness. On the contrary, like me, most people in these jobs seem positively sad. I know I was. In the corporate world, there is an underlying assumption on the part of the employers that since their employees are being paid ‘top-dollar’, the employees have signed away their control over their time and lives to their bosses or clients or both. The sense of entitlement over their employees’ time in the corporate world is staggering. I have been through it, and I can attest to it. It is assumed that you are not going to have any more time that is truly your own once you are in the workforce. You are made to feel almost guilty for taking time off. Free time is blasphemy, and if you ask for it, you’re constantly reminded of how well you are being paid and how you have no cause for complaint (with an undertone of how easily replaceable you are).

Housel sums up this feeling I have had for the duration of my entire career quite well. He talks about his time spent interning as an investment banker. He writes, “on my first day I realised why investment bankers made a lot of money. They work longer and more controlled hours than I knew humans could handle. Actually, most can’t handle it. Going home before midnight was considered a luxury, and there was a saying in the office, “If you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t bother coming back on Sunday.” The job was intellectually stimulating, paid well, and made me feel important. But every waking second of my time became a slave to my boss’s demands, which was enough to turn it into one of the most miserable experiences of my life. It was a four-month internship. I lasted a month.”

I relate to the things he says so much. Nowhere is the idea of the boss / company controlling
“every second” of our time truer than in the legal world. One of the first things I remember being told in my orientation week when I had just joined my job as a fresher was the number of hours, we need to bill every year as a minimum. Anything below that in your ‘timesheet’ (an ominous little thing us lawyers use to keep track of how much time we have spent doing specific things for our clients) and you’d have to take a pay cut of 20% (I think) from your monthly salary. The number of hours we had to bill on a yearly basis, again as a minimum, was 2200. At the time, I didn’t think too much of this. My math is weak anyway, so I had no idea what this meant in real terms. But as work progressed, the ridiculousness of this number started becoming apparent. There was no way I could keep up with this and be happy. If this was the minimum, I would probably have to do a lot more than this to ‘excel’ in my career and make the partners notice me. Right? Right. But I knew right from the very beginning, that this was something I could not keep up with. I mean, I probably can (and I did quite well in my job), but I would have to kill parts of my soul to be ok with that existence. Happiness was out of the question, with hours like these, and control over them this exacting.

Yale has published a very famous paper which calculates exactly how many hours you would have to put in to achieve the minimum number of billable hours. Accounting for lunch breaks, coffee breaks, holidays, and commute (the number taken in the paper is very conservative, and I know, as I am sure all of you know, that these numbers are not representative of what a real day in the workplace looks like) and assuming you work 47 weeks in a year, you would have to be present at work for about 3058 hours a year to be able to bill 2201 hours. To give you context, there are a total of 8760 hours in a year, and about 7896 hours in 47 weeks. Out of these 7896 hours, you will have to spend about half at work to achieve the minimum number of billable required. The minimum. We are talking about essentially half of all your waking hours being spent at work. I don’t know if this sounds bad enough to the rest of you, but to me that was a lot more than I was willing to give.

Let us take a step back. What we have discussed till now is the minimum you have to achieve in a single year if you don’t want to take a pay cut. The actual numbers put in are far, far greater. And the amount of time spent at work is also far, far more. You will, as any normal person does, also take sick leaves (perhaps more than the average person if you are working such a high stress job with such insane hours) and more holidays if you can (not to say that they leave you alone on holidays, they never do). It isn’t a stretch to say that we spend all our natural waking hours on work, and then some (hours we should be sleeping). If this isn’t an unsustainable little pot for acute misery, I don’t know what is.

And the thing is, the work itself wasn’t so bad for me. I liked the work I did. I thought I was good at it, and I loved putting in the work to produce something I was proud of. I enjoyed being a person in the team that other people could rely on. My team was perhaps the nicest team in our entire office, and my boss, one of the best people I have met. He would, whenever he could, make sure we were given time off, weren’t overworking ourselves too much. And for every hour of work, we put in, he would put in at least twice that amount. But it was still miserable to be at work constantly. Housel talks about this too. He says, “The hardest thing about this was that I loved the work. And I wanted to work hard. But doing something you love on a schedule you can’t control can feel the same as doing something you hate.”

There is a word in psychology for this feeling. It is called ‘reactance’.  Reactance is defined as “an unpleasant motivational arousal (reaction) to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioural freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives.” And this ‘reactance’ is exactly what makes the entire experience of being in the workforce so unpleasant for so many of us. I am convinced that a lot more of us would stick onto our jobs if we could just have some time to ourselves.

I know our generation (the millennials that is) get a lot of flak for not being able to keep a job down. Our parents and grandparents never had an issue with working. Many times, the older generations can’t understand why we get so anxious and unhappy in our jobs. That is because they had a privilege many of us don’t have. The ability to disconnect from the workplace. Housel talks about how the nature of labour has changed. Earlier, the kind of work people did was mostly manual. They went into a workplace, did the work physically, with their hands, and came back. No one could work at home even if they wanted to – because of the kind of work they did. So, naturally, once they were out of office, they did not need to think about work till the next day. For us, most of our work is mental. Predominantly, as a generation, we work in the service sector (I think they call it the tertiary sector in economics terms). We are required to think about the work we do, and work products more often than not, are the result of intellectual or mental labour. We don’t work in factories or in the farms. We work inside our heads – thinking of marketing strategies, financing arrangements, legal outcomes, product efficiency and what not. Because the work happens mostly inside our heads, there is no option of ‘switching off from work’. Add to that the fact that we need to be constantly available to others in our lines of work (at least I know I had to be). Put in context, it isn’t that difficult to see the differences in the kind of work we do, and why our generation is unhappier with their work-life on the whole.

Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic states, “If the operating equipment of the 21st century is a portable device, this means the modern factory is not a place at all. It is the day itself. The computer age has liberated the tools of productivity from the office. Most knowledge workers, whose laptops and smartphones are portable all-purpose media making machines can theoretically be as productive at 2 pm in the main office as 2 am in the Tokyo WeWork or at midnight on the couch.”

And make no mistake, they will trouble you even at midnight, even on your couch, or wherever else they can.

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