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Yoga for Economists, Part 2: A quick fix to increase your happiness at work

Part 1 of “Yoga for Economists” explained why thinking like an economist is a direct cause of unhappiness, according to various Eastern philosophies. The way many of us mentally organize our professional lives, however, also causes unhappiness by construction. The reason is a notch deeper, but also easier to fix.

The issue is that we set up our projects in self-destructive ways. A clear goal is set: for example, publication of the paper. Or: purchase of the new Porsche. The next promotion. Whatever — add your favorite example. Before the goal is reached, there is no satisfaction. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – after all, the lack of satisfaction may have a “motivating” and productivity-enhancing effect. Just not satisfying.

Tragically, one doesn’t get satisfaction either when the acceptance notification enters the inbox, the promotion letter comes in, or the new Porsche stands in the garage — at least not for more than a brief moment. Rather than lasting happiness, a void of meaninglessness quickly opens up. The gap has to be immediately filled with a new project or goal, or otherwise depression ensues. (If you’ve ever run a marathon, how long did it take after crossing the finishing line until you thought about when you’ll run another? Less than five minutes? Ten?)

The “mistake,” if you will, lies with ascribing meaning to the singular point in time that marks completion of the goal. That’s by contrast to valuing the ongoing engagement in the process that may lead to the goal. Hegel distinguished these alternative framings as atelic as opposed to telic activities. Yogis practice breathing and sitting still precisely to learn to focus the mind on the process of mere being. That process is continuous and does not necessitate a perpetual cycle of construction and self-destruction of projects.

Luckily, there is a quick fix for this problem that doesn’t require years of devotion, doesn’t require growing a beard, and not even sitting in a lotus. Even better: we can make ourselves happier without changing what we do, but merely by changing how we do it. How? Call it a change in attitude, or a change in the way we think about what we do. For example, if we decide to value working as economists, and, in any given moment, continuously give our best effort at producing valuable insights to the world, our activity ceases to be focused on a particular point in time. The continuity of a meaningful existence is then ensured — not only when working on a paper, but also while spending time on items that don’t directly contribute to the next A-journal publication. (Think advising students, or teaching. Or writing a couple of blog posts titled “Yoga for Economists”.)

The best thing is: such a change in attitude or mental organization of our projects does not conflict with actually scoring that next publication – it’ll just make the way there a whole lot more pleasurable and satisfying.

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