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Labor Day Meditation

Labor Day Meditation
Labor Day Meditation

    Today is Labor Day in the United States. A product of the labor movement, Labor Day was established in 1882 (it became a federal holiday in 1894) as a day to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of American workers — though you’d hardly know it from the drunken barbeques and (non-drunken) white sales that are our preferred means of celebrating the day today. Achievements like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, paid vacation, health benefits, workplace safety laws, and the right to collectively bargain with employers (who have always collectively managed).

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    In the last few decades, a lot of American labor’s accomplishments have been eroded, some as a result of government deregulation, but possibly more as a consequence of changing market relations, the exportation of most production overseas, and a change in attitude by Americans towards organized labor itself. You’d be hard-pressed today to find an American who works 40 hours; most studies peg the average American work-week at around 55 hours. At the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans work two jobs to make ends meet; at the top a new crop of “knowledge workers” puts in longer and longer hours to meet the demands of their jobs. Workers at the most attractive companies crow about the amenities — gyms, gourmet cafeterias, video games, dry cleaners, and so on — that make it almost possible for them not to leave work at all.

    With work hours growing longer and productivity skyrocketing (American productivity has more than doubled in the last two decades) you’d think we’d be living pretty high on the metaphorical hog, but the reality is that American wages have been more or less unchanged for decades, and sit at levels far below those of other “developed” nations. Because of rising housing costs, gas prices, and other expenses, even 6-figure professionals are living paycheck-to-paycheck (if they’re not financing their lifestyles with charge cards and high-interest second mortgages).

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    The upshot is, a lot of Americans (and other folks, though the rest of you have wisely decided to celebrate your labor days in the springtime) are turning every which way, sometimes all at once, tying to keep their heads on straight. The rise over the last couple years of blogs and other websites dedicated to personal productivity, time management, and organization testifies directly to the ever-shrinking gap between the amount of work we have and the number of hours we have to do it in — if we’re not already at negative figures. More and more of our business literature reads like self-help; actually, much of it is self-help, because the biggest challenge facing working people these days are primarily psychological: too much work, too little personal space, too much pressure, too little security, too much going out, not enough coming in.

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    So, this Labor Day, I wanted to step back and take a look at some of the bigger principles that inform most of the work we do here at lifehack.org, accompanied by the dozens if not hundreds of other writers that make up the “lifehack-oriented” web. Sort of a “50,000 foot” view of things, to borrow from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. These aren’t hacks, per se, but the ends that the tips, advice, and simple hacks we present here are aimed at achieving.

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    • Work-Life Balance: Today’s workers struggle to find time for family, personal health and fitness, education, hobbies, and other interests, and employers are by and large unmoved by such concerns. Worrying too much about non-work matters has come to be seen as frivolous, undedicated, even disloyal, a fact illustrated by the results of a recent study that found only a tiny percentage of North Americans (USAnians and Canadians) take even the meager two weeks paid vacation most employers allow. Even sick time goes unused in most instances, as employees fear appearing selfish or uncommitted to their work. The lack of time to physically and mentally recuperate leaves us unhappy, burnt out, and subject to further (and likely greater) illness. Finding a healthy balance between our working selves and our personal selves has become a crucial concern for working people, whatever their field.
    • Goals: Closely related to work-life balance is the need to establish goals for ourselves, both as workers and as individuals. Unfortunately, work itself has become many people’s only goal, with no consideration of what we hope working to make possible for us. Since many paychecks leave so little left over after bills, groceries, clothing, gas, and incidental expenses are taken care of, it can come quite easily to seem like we work to make enough to stay alive so we can keep working. Without clear goals, we are left with no yardstick against which to measure our work, or any other activities. It’s no wonder that the treadmill has come to be the preferred metaphor for describing our lives.
    • Personal Space: Our forebears in the labor movement worked hard to make clear separations between our working lives and our personal lives. Today, working at or from home is one of the fastest-growing trends, and technologies like cell phones, mobile email platforms like Blackberries, email, and cheap broadband have made it possible — and often necessary — for workers to be “always on call”. It is not uncommon for people’s homes to become not a refuge from work but an extension of it. How we erect boundaries and delineate spaces that are “just for me”, and what we do with such spaces when (if?) we construct them, is a central worry for many of us.
    • Personal Development: Most of us would like to be better people. For some that means pursuing an education, for others that means taking part in a religious community, for still others that means being more reliable parents and caretakers. For many of us, though, finding the time, money, and resources to commit to our personal growth is an overwhelming challenge. The rise of “quick-fix” solutions — anti-depressants, cosmetic surgery, diet pills, fast-track educational programs, self-help books, get-rich-quick schemes, one-day workshops, and 1-hour DVDs that promise to tell all the secrets of life — offers us something that feels like personal development without straining our budget or our schedules.
    • The Cure for “Consumeritis”: Under the pressure of increased working hours, weakened family ties, and limited opportunities for growth, we find ourselves investing more and more of our identities in the things we can buy. Karl Marx, who knew a thing or two about working lives, regardless of what you think of his politics, wrote that workers who invest ever-increasing portions of their identities in the things they produce for someone else’s profit turn to consumerism in a vain attempt to recapture the pieces of themselves they’ve lost. It’s not surprising that self-storage is one of the US’s fastest-growing businesses. Many of us have found the rewards of consumption and accumulation to be empty and unfulfilling, and seek ways to divorce ourselves from the never-ending cycle of buying, displaying, and ultimately storing or discarding objects of questionable value, and have begun to seek out ways of minimizing the role of consumption in our lives. Finding alternatives, however, is not always easy.
    • Meaningfulness: We want to be more engaged with our communities and the social problems that face them, we want to develop our talents, and we want to reach out to those around us in more meaningful ways. Yet we find that we are increasingly isolated from our neighbors and fearful of the communities in which our children go to school. We distrust both the businesses we patronize and the government that is supposed to protect us. Although some lucky few manage to build careers around their callings, for most of us — especially those with families to support — this simply is not possible. So how else can we cultivate meaningfulness in our lives, and how can we share it with others?

    These are some of the thoughts and questions I’ve come up with on this Labor Day. Not everyone will share these concerns, of course; there are many who have found their own answers to these concerns and are actively pursuing lives that they find rich and fulfilling. Others will have concerns of their own that trump these — just putting food on the table is, alas, a daily struggle in millions of American households, and the failure to do so is felt far more keenly than the lack of personal space or educational opportunities. But I like to think that, in this time of almost obscene plenty, with the total wealth in the US (and the rest of the Western World) growing at rates unheard of in human history, these problems can be overcome and people freed to grow to the limits of their talents and desires. For me, that’s what Labor Day is about, and that’s what lifehack.org and its fellow personal productivity sites are about.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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