Monday, March 8, 2010

Work-Life Balance Made Difficult

Everyone is always talking about how modern life is such a drag, so busy, so stressful, no time to stop and smell the roses but no way to slow things down.  Inevitably, the next thing they say is it's really important to have some work-life balance.

It always bugs me when this is presented as a kind of personal choice.  Like all you have to do is prioritize, and get organized, and voila! you'll be sitting at home at 6:00 pm starting a healthy supper, listening to Mozart, and talking to the cat.

My feeling is, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.  The problem isn't that people aren't getting with the program; the problem is that the problem is really difficult.

I have a theory about why, just now, it's especially difficult.  My theory involves two ideas that all seem right when you consider them alone, but when put together make things impossible.

The first basic idea is reward for merit and achievement.  We live in a competitive society, in which being able to accomplish more, and actually accomplishing more, are rewarded by better jobs and the things that follow:  more money, nicer stuff, better schools for the kids, etc. etc.

The second basic idea is social and political equality.  There used to be times when some people lived ordinary autonomous lives while other people made dinner, cleaned the kitchen, fluffed the towels, and fed the babies.  In some times and places it was servants -- servants for everyone who could possibly avoid actually being a servant.  I'm always amazed:  you'll be reading a book about Victorian England or turn-of-the century India or nineteenth-century America, and there will be a description of some "poor" family, who can only eat butter every so often or whatever, but who obviously has at least one servant to clean and cook and make things nice.  Then of course it's often just the whole category of "women" who have to do all the boring work of life so men can be the ones living normally.  But now we don't have that anymore.  People are equal.

If you think about it, just putting these two ideas - of competition and equality - together, you get a powder keg.  Each household has some certain number of adults; each adult is rewarded in the same way for working harder longer hours.  No one is constrained by culture or law to staying home to take care of things.  Since every other household is doing the same thing, just keeping up requires each person to work a lot.  You have to keep up, since prices for things like houses are set relative to what each person can pay.  So who's going to pick up the dry-cleaning?  You are, on your way home from working late.

Actually there's a third thing which makes the clash between the first two even worse, and which comes from the realization that when everyone does the easy version of life's boring tasks, we got problems like climate change, pollution, and health problems.  Sure, you can respond to the first two ideas -- and most of us do, to some extent -- by eating lots of prepared foods, getting your coffee in convenient disposable cups, driving your own car to work since it's faster than taking the bus, drinking water out of individual plastic bottles every time you're thirsty.  But we hear all the time that collectively these solutions aren't working out so great for us.  It would be better if we could slow down a little, eat dinner with the family every night, walk to the bus stop, cook some roasted vegetables.

But no one has the time for these things.  And that's because of one and two.  Everyone works; everyone is rewarded in the same way for more time spent working and less time spent cooking; everyone has to make as much money as everyone else to be able to afford things.  So no one has any time at home.

If I'm right then work life balance isn't something an individual seeks as much as something impossible for us because of forces beyond our control.

The diagram at the top of the post comes from the Canadian Government, of all things, at a page about, yeah, work-life balance.  Of course, I found it by googling "work-life balance" and "images," which, as you can imagine, yields mostly the expected assortment of Dilbert-like cartoons and zen stones piled on top of one another.  The Canadian document ends by saying

The workplace is where there is a convergence of the major changes in Canadian society and economy. Government's big policy goals, rooted in the desire to enhance the economic and social well-being of Canadians, can be played out in the workplace.

which honestly I find almost incomprehensible.  Yes changes in society manifest themselves in the workplace, and then ... what?

So if it's a clash of culture forces, what should we do?  My own feeling is that since we're obviously not getting rid of equality, it's really the first idea that's gotta go. It sounds nice, reward for accomplishment and achievement, with the answers sorted out by competition.  But when you put it into practice it doesn't always work out so well.  As long as working more hours gets each person more success, and as long as prices are partly determined by what people are willing to pay, the end result is going to suck.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Reflection, Rumination, Depression, Melancholy, and the Pointlessness of Human Life

This is Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I from the 16th century.  I like it so much I have a large framed print of it above my desk at home.  I don't know how well you can see the details (there's a better version here); the woman is surrounded with all the items of learning and science -- she's got a compass, that weird polyhedron, a scale, and so on -- but she is resting her head on her chin in a mode of utter discouragement, disengagement, and sadness.

I like it because even though it was made so long ago I feel I can identify with its sentiments immediately.  In fact, I know about this engraving I because I had a tendency, while doing my intellectual work, to occasionally put my own head on my chin with such an expression.  One day my friend said, "You look just like Melancolia!"  I did.  And I do.

I've always found that certain kinds of intellectual reflection lead me to sad and melancholy feelings.  Why is this?  Maybe it's that if you're thinking about why people are the way they are and why life is the way it is, you're dangerously close to that weird vertigo you can get where life seems meaningless and pointless.  Or maybe it's because intellectual reflection requires you to quiet the strong emotions that tend to connect you most obviously to caring about things and being all engaged in them.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran an article in the magazine exploring the idea that depression might be useful -- that it might have been selected for in evolution for reasons.  I read it with the usual mix of open-mindedness and skepticism 'til I got to this passage, which I must say caught me up a little short because it seemed so apt.
 "It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy."
The broader idea, though, I found less intuitive.  This broader idea is supposed to be that rumination is the activity common to both, and that ruminating is useful.  Ruminating, reflecting, turning something over endlessly in your mind -- these are activities that 1) are good when you're trying to figure out what to do 2) are costly and boring and not things we're apt to just take up and 3) are encouraged by a depressed state of mind, in which eating sleeping sex and work lose their ordinary appeal.

This broader idea struck me as implausible, on grounds mentioned by some critics cited in the article.  If you're really depressed, you do actually do things that are disastrous from an evolutionary point of view.  You fail to take care of your children, or you fail to eat, or whatever.

The other thing I found puzzling is that the article treated depression as if often a person who is depressed is so because they have some unresolved thing they have to sort out.  Like there's an example of a guy who is unhappy in his work but can't decide whether to leave his job. Eventually he decides to leave, and then his depression goes away.

I don't think I've ever been really depressed, so I don't know, but I can tell you that almost none of my sad thoughts arise because I have some unresolved thing I have to figure out.  My sad thoughts have to do with things like the fact that I am going to die, and the fact that the people I love are going to die too, and that even during this brief life there is so much pain and suffering for so many people.  And that life, when you look at it too analytically, can just seem really pointless.

This morning I was having some sad thoughts.  But then the weather cleared, and the sun came out, and everything had that peculiar very early Spring time look you see in the Northeast, where slight differences in the angle of the sun make the season's lights all so different.  The snow everywhere was melting with that drip drippy sound of warm weather.  People were out. Suddenly, I was awash in happy feelings.

So I think it's complicated, this melancholy thing.