The Where of Well-being; Me, Myself and American Values (Part 5)

Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

How much control do you feel you have over your life?

When I hear this question the answer that comes to my mind is, “It depends.”

There are areas in my life that I have immense control over but those areas that I have control over exist within restrictions.

For example, there are 168 hours per week. I work a full time job which takes up 40 hours a week (or more).

Let’s break it down:

168 hours in a week

40 hours working

56 hours sleeping (I strive to get the recommended 8 hours a night)

5–7ish hours commuting (depending on the traffic)

Right there about 103 hours of my week are consumed solely by work so I can keep a roof over my head, food on the table and sleep (which I am told is essential to functioning properly ;)

I have roughly 3.5 hours in the morning before work and 3.5 hours when I get home from work, plus 48 hours on weekends, where I am solely in control of my own time and can be self-directed in my actions.

Mind you, we haven’t yet accounted for spending time with my partner, seeing friends or family, cooking and eating, exercise or, imagine this, resting. If I were a parent I would have to fit in there helping kids with their homework, getting them ready for bed, doing countless loads of laundry, accompanying them to extracurricular activities and playdates among the additional responsibilities of caring for children.

As I take inventory on where I allocate my time I am astounded by how little time there is to just be. In the US we live in a culture where one of our primary societal values is working.

Working can be an important part of our lives. For some, it is a source of meaning, purpose and connection. But should work consume the majority of our lives, our times and our identities?

Think about it. As little children, maybe as young as four or five, we start getting asked by adults, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Not only is that an unrealistic question for kids to answer and assumes that we will only do one thing infinitely. More importantly though, as Adam Grant points out in his latest book Think Again, he objects to this question because “…it encourages kids to make work the main event of their identities. When you’re asked what you want to be, the only socially acceptable response is a job.”*

I think it’s worth taking a look at this.

The values that made us

In 1984 Robert Kohls, the Executive Director of the Washington International Center at the time, published an article outlining thirteen distinct American cultural values*. The goal of research was to help people from outside the United States better understand American culture. Below I highlight four of the thirteen values that are distinctly connected to how work, achievement and productivity shape the limitations on our time.

1. PERSONAL CONTROL OVER THE ENVIRONMENT People can/should control nature, their own environment and destiny. The future is not left to fate. Result: An energetic, goal-oriented society

2. TIME AND ITS IMPORTANCE Time is valuable — achievement of goals depends on the productive use of time. Result: An efficient and progressive society often at the expense of interpersonal relationships.

3. COMPETITION AND FREE ENTERPRISE Americans believe competition brings out the best in people and free enterprise leads to progress and produces success Result: Competition is emphasized over cooperation.

4. ACTION AND WORK ORIENTATION Americans believe that work is morally right; that it is immoral to waste time. Result: There is more emphasis on “doing” rather than “being”. This is a no-nonsense attitude toward life.

Even the first value “Personal control over the environment” exists to result in a goal-oriented society. Goals are often influenced by achievement, “doing” more, rather than just “being”. A society that will strive to do and achieve more so that we can compete in the free market (connected to value #3 on this list). I think that the first value should read “Personal control determined by the restraints of the environment” as it is often our environment, our societal culture, that dictates how much personal control we have. The truth is we do need to exercise personal control and autonomy in our lives but the question is, to what end?

Carrots motivate horses, not people

One of my favorite psychological frameworks is self-determination theory (SDT). The idea is that as humans we are intrinsically motivated. There is no need to hang a carrot above someone’s head because given the right conditions to support an individual’s autonomy (choice + control), competence (mastery) and relatedness (belonging + connection) we are inherently driven.

This concept goes against a common misconception that came out of the Industrial Revolution that workers would respond to extrinsic motivators, comparing humans to horses who are motivated by carrots.* Beginning in the 1950s the business world, with the influence of psychology, began questioning this approach which Daniel Pink outlines in his book Drive; The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

SDT has been applied in various domains including education, health and medicine, and organizations.* I am an advocate and a bit of an evangelical for SDT because autonomy, competence and relatedness are necessary for our psychological well-being.

This is why it is essential to not only feel like we are in control of our own life but to be in control of our life, at least most of the time. Let’s be clear, I am not saying we shouldn’t have to work. In fact, what we know from SDT, given the right conditions, we are motivated to work. Have we ever considered that maybe people don’t want to work in environments that are, pardon my language, shitty?

SDT has been written about in business books and “motivation” is a buzzword in pretty much any industry and prevalent in our personal lives. If we truly had personal control over our environment, if our society was shaped in a way that enhanced the conditions for self determination would we need to be prosthelytizing to CEOS that cultivating conditions to support the self determination of employees will enhance their motivation?

It is not that we shouldn’t be encouraging CEOs to understand the benefits of self determination in the workplace because creating the conditions to experience autonomy, relatedness and belonging will enhance employee well-being. That benefits not just the employee but most likely, the business as well. My critique lies in the intention.

Is the desire for increasing motivation to create more productive employees so that the company makes more money to be competitive in the global market? Or is the desire for increasing motivation through intrinsic drivers because we know that it contributes to our psychological well-being, therefore resulting in more productivity, which also happens to be an outcome and a benefit to the business?

Self determination in itself, is positive. But, due to our underlying values, it can be utilized to reinforce actions and behaviors that help generate profit and undervalue people.

What if we weren’t tied to our desks for a minimum of 40 hours per week for the sake of being perceived as productive?

Our culture is hyperfocused on doing over being.

Reclaiming our agency

I believe that individuals do have control over their time, but most of our time is already dedicated to surviving within a system that measures the value of our life on what we can do and produce, not on how much we love, care or create or cultivate (think creating art, tending to a garden. The simple pleasures we do for the sake of doing it, not as a means to an end).

How do some of us, myself included, try to cope and adjust to this broken (by the design of specific policies) system and work to identify areas of our life that we can control? Well, by using one hour out of our 168 in therapy, of course.

I am a huge advocate for therapy and it is not systemic change. Yet, identifying where we have control in our personal lives is critical to our personal well-being despite the fact that societal failure might be the root cause or contributing factor to ending up in therapy in the first place.

There is a prevalent narrative in our society, where we see ourselves as the broken ones. Or, in our society of victim blaming, there is a prevailing narrative that something is wrong with other people. In reality, we are trying to be human in a world that does not value our personhood.

In a recent podcast episode of Dare to Lead*, researcher and author Brené Brown interviews Dr. Susan David who is an Harvard Medical School psychologist and studies emotional agility which is defined as “an individual’s ability to experience their thoughts and emotions and events in a way that doesn’t drive them in negative ways, but instead encourages them to reveal the best of themselves.”*

They were discussing the complex relationship between the individual and the system. Throughout the Where of Well-being series we have explored Isaac and Ora Prilleltensky’s “sites,” or locations of well-being; communities, organizations and individual persons. When I hear Dr. David talk about systems I think that can be interchangeable for “sites”. Sites of well-being can be macro, like cities or society at large, to more micro, a team within an organization or your own immediate family.

Dr. David said, “But I’ve been thinking more that when we blame systems for everything, it can sound really empowering. It’s like, “It’s the system’s fault,” but actually, in some ways it’s the most disempowering thing you can do to a person, to say it’s entirely 100% a system that acts on you, whether the system is a system of the family or whether it’s a system of the workplace.”

We have agency in how we respond.

The right and the responsibility of personal well-being

The concept of Positive Citizenship is about the reciprocal relationship between the individual and various systems or sites. Communities, organizations, families — they are made up of many individuals. Your city or local supermarket, for example, cannot run without people. And individual persons cannot exist in isolation, we need the support of systems and to be in relation to others.

It was my intention throughout the Where of Well-being series for us to think about how we, as individuals within these various systems, show up. To recognize that, although we might not be able to change the entire culture of our workplace, what we can change is how we show up in those spaces. We have control over our own behaviors and responses.

Our systems are flawed and messy because we are flawed and messy. Many systems are harmful to us as people. Yet, we do harm to ourselves if we give up our own agency.

In a system that thrives on not seeing, nor affirming our value, what happens when we relinquish our own agency? Inadvertently we cause harm to ourselves. I also believe that we can cause harm to others, as our values and contributions can enhance and serve the greater good for all.

We have the right, and the responsibility, to experience personal well-being. I believe it is our birthright to experience well-being and with that a responsibility not to forfeit it.

So what can we do to experience personal well-being within the confines of our culture? I think that is an individual journey but what we know is that our basic needs as individuals are mastery, self-efficacy, voice and choice, skills, growth, spiritually and control.*

For myself it has been a bit of an unlearning and generating awareness on how the values of society have influenced my behavior. Before I was very focused on figuring out how to transform activities I loved to do into ways to make money. Part of what I realized during Covid was that doing something for the sake of experiencing joy and flow was enough. And sometimes doing nothing at all is priceless. By gaining clarity about what values are mine and what values were prescribed to me by society I have been able to have more choice in how I spend my time even when I can’t influence the standard 40 hour a week work structure.

The reality is that other people might not have the privilege of free time. For basic survival some people need to work multiple jobs. Resting should be a right but in a society where our values cause us to hustle for our worthiness “rest is resistance.” This is the tagline of an organization called The Nap Ministry. It was founded by Tricia Hersey to “examine the liberating power of naps.”

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor is most well known for writing about the power of exercising agency within oppressive conditions said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I believe that the act of bringing awareness and attention to our personal well-being enables us to choose how we respond when we are in the two other sites of well-being, organizational and community. We might not be able to change entire systems on our own but we can choose how we act and respond within those systems, allowing ourselves to be changed and hopefully, changing the experiences of others.

Share in the comments:

What are your personal values and how do those values influence your actions and behaviors?

What contributes to your personal well-being?

How do you rest?

*Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Penguin Publishing Group, 2021. (p. 230)

*Boston University adapted the Values in American Culture and I use that text verbatim for cohesiveness. Fordham University has a longer version that you can find here that provides more details and context.

*Pink, Daniel. H. (2009). Drive; The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books.


* Brown, B. (Host). (2021, March 1). Brené with Dr. Susan David on The Dangers of Toxic Positivity, Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.


*Prilleltensky, I., & Prilleltensky, O. (2006). Promoting well-being: linking personal, organizational, and community change. John Wiley.



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