Science And The Myth Of Being Worthy

Maarten van Doorn
Apr 6 · 6 min read

Traditional morality has it backwards.

In a cruel way.

It features this prevalent idea that happiness requires upfront payment. Both chronologically and morally, enjoyment comes after work. First toil, then fun.

Suffer. Then laugh.

Monks hitting themselves and locking themselves in rooms for days and not eating or even speaking for years on end to deserve bliss in the afterlife. People abstaining from sex until marriage to earn the right to feel ecstasy.

For a long time, “good” was defined in terms of self-denial. Being a virtuous person meant slaughtering your desires.

For thousands of years, such an attitude might have been critical to, after we switched from hunter-gathering to farming — a transition anthropologist Jared Diamond labeled “the worst mistake in the history of mankind” — feed and hold together our growing numbers.

But times have changed.

“Modern life can not even be compared to ancient living. It’s safe, easy and prosperous.” — Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

Therefore,

There’s not much of history you’d want to return to. (Unless you think 40 is a good age to die of typhoid fever.)” Rob Wijnberg

We are so rich that we, en masse, can even afford to, to partly quote Tyler Durden, “buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like”.

Many of us are pretty damn high in Maslow’s pyramid. It’s easy to forget that.

And yet, while we ‘should’ be happier, we aren’t.

Morals change slowly.

Morality

Reminiscent of this Protestant Work Ethic, many people still seem to believe that, ethically, happiness comes after work.

“By the sweat of your face / you shall eat bread.” — Genesis 3:19

Sure, we should contribute to society and work and do our share.

But the idea that we should suffer through the 9-to-5 to deserve that Friday-night beer doesn’t make any sense whatsoever (anymore). Such arguments about “how much work is morally required” reveal an oversimplification in our ordinary concept of ‘work’.

We see ‘work’ as the things we must do. Our obligations. Our shoulds. It has a negative connotation.

In the words of the legendary philosopher Alan Watts:

“You are involved by and large in a very strange business system which divides your day into work and play. Work is something that everybody does and you get paid to do it because nobody could care less about doing it.

In other words, it is so abominable and boring that you can get paid for doing it. And the object of doing this is to make money. And the object of making money, is to go home and enjoy the money that you’ve made. When you got it, you see, “you can buy pleasure.”

This too, you might respond, smells like an overgeneralization and if you were to say that, you’d have a point.

Nevertheless, the underlying theory of the role of work in modern culture is largely accurate. When we think of something as work, we think it’s not something that gets to be enjoyed.

That’s why, I think, books like The 4-Hour Workweek that promise a life free of doing any work so you can chill on a beach and sip mojitos for eternity are so popular these days.

It’s time we opt out of this way of thinking.

1. It ignores a crucial differentation

Just like it’s fine to not care about unimportant ‘work4work’, by all means, go ahead and enjoy meaningful work and do lots of it. When you see arguments about “how much work is too much,” they’re similarly oversimplifying the concept of work. If you love what you’re working on, then there’s no reason you can’t work more than a 40 hour week on it.

Here’s a thought: spending 60 hours on meaningless, unfulfilling work is not the same as spending 60 hours doing something that you love and/or makes the world a better place.

This distinction is hardly noticed today. We lump together two kinds of business that should be separated: the work that comes from pointless toil glamour, and the effort that comes from trying to achieve a worthwhile goal.

While this is hard for many people to accept, doing less meaningless work, so that you can spend time on things of higher personal concern, is not laziness.

Insisting on this distinction is not sinful, but authentic.

2. It’s scientifically backwards

Apart from the moral case, there’s also an empirical argument for why exerting effort shouldn’t be thought of as a prerequisite to happiness.

According to psychological research, happiness comes before performance. Not the other way around.

For example, studies done by motivation researchers Ayelet Fischbach and Kaitlin Woolley reveal that enjoyment best predicts persistence on long-term goals and New Year’s resolutions. Their analyses paint a picture according to which willpower and the like are less relevant, whereas the experience itself matters more.

In effect, when you want to know whether a person will stick to something, it’s more important to know whether she, in fact, likes the daily grind than it is to know how mentally tough she is.

Extrapolating from such studies, in his popular TED talk, Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor argues for a reversal of the image on which performance takes priority over well-being:

What we found is that only 25% of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75% percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.”

He goes on to cite research according to which your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.

“Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.”

This gives us a scientific case for reversing the order for happiness and performance: first feel good, and then start doing things from this space of being, and then watch how what you will do is so much more effective.

That’s not idle, but smart.

All you need to know

“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story.” — Barney, How I Met Your Mother

Let’s wrap up. Most people follow a formula for happiness and success like this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.

There are two mistakes here.

First, ethically, we don’t need to do anything before we deserve happiness. Most of the things people spend their working hours on, don’t make lives better anyway. That makes it’s hard to see why, for example, the person sending e-mails all day, is thereby somehow more entitled to feelings of satisfaction than someone who laid in bed watching Game of Thrones.

That is, except if it was the effort itself, regardless of its usefulness, what it was all about to begin with. But that’s a ridiculous idea. A false cultural narrative.

And second, research shows that if we first change our happiness, then we are in a much better position to positively affect how much value we add to society.

“But,” you say, “don’t I need something to feel good about? Something that makes me feel happy?”

Here’s the rub, and pay attention because I think this is one of the most important psychological discoveries about life and human nature of this century: no, you don’t.

Positive psychology research shows that the [if → then] attitude we cultivate towards happiness has it backwards. You feel good not because the world is right, but your world is right because you feel good.

Here’s Achor again:

“[We assume] that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels, when in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.”

It’s not the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.

So want to become successful? Then first become an expert in how to feel good.

It’s happiness that should be your number one priority.


There’s more to that

If you want more of your assumptions challenged, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

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