Commentary


Weekending for the Workday

posted Oct 5, 2012, 10:15 AM by Geoffrey Edelmann   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 1:22 PM ]

What is the best way to recover on the weekend and how important is that on your job performance? Binnewies et al investigates this question.


Relations between recovery experiences, state of being recovered, and job performance.
Relations between recovery experiences, state of being recovered, and job performance.
Figure 1: Binneweiss shows that recovery experiences during the weekend predict the state of being recovered which in turn predict weekly job performance. From Recovery during the weekend and fluctuations in weekly job performance: A week-level study examining intra-individual relationships.

They site three important factors: psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery experiences as the best way to recover from the weekend. If successful a relaxed worker shows more performance, initiative, and good behavior with less perceived effort.

Psychological detachment is not only physically being away from work but mentally shelving all thoughts of work (no checking work email on your phone!). Relaxation comes from actions that lower heart/breathing rates and muscle tension. For example yoga, meditation, music, and baths. A mastery experience is a challenging effort that leads to a sense of achievement e.g. sports, hobbies, volunteering, or music.

Figure 1 gives us the big picture of recovering. In order of importance, relaxation, detachment, and mastery contribute to our state of being recovered. That state in turn affects our personal initiative, perceived effort, organized citizenship behavior (helping), and finally task performance, respective to importance. I should note that the relationship with perceived effort is negative, meaning the more recovered we were after the weekend the more our work naturally flows.

Taken together, workplaces should encourage people to savor their weekend. We should switch off from work, relax, and better ourselves. I find it interesting that the effort you put into mastery (e.g. frustrating and repetitious music practice) is ultimately a small mental investment and that even in the short term it creates a positive sense of well being. So master your hobby, practice your sport, and take a deep breath.
 

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Make Fewer Decisions Make Better Ones

posted Oct 5, 2012, 8:05 AM by Geoffrey Edelmann   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 10:29 AM ]

Making many mundane decisions (even if pleasant) wears down our mental energy causing us to make bad decisions as we grow weary. Pozen explores this premise in the context of President Barrack Obama's routines of simple clothing and food choices to make time for the important tasks of his day to day. As Slashdot points out, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg suggest the same and are famous for wearing the same clothes day in and out.

However, I want to focus this post on research by Vohs et al. entitled, "Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: A limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative."  The authors claim that making decisions deplete the same mental resource that we need for self-control and to solve problems. Thus if you spent the day making many decisions, even tiny ones like what to wear or pleasant ones like what to have for lunch, your mental reserves become drained. They then quantify how this effects things like physical stamina, fortitude, procrastination, and arithmetic.

In one experiment the participants were given a mentally taxing product-rating task. Then they were shuttled into another room with 20 small paper cups filled with a foul tasting mixture. The subject got $0.05 for each cup that they drank, if they so chose to. Presumably drinking more requires more self-control to override the distaste. At least the participants were paid and given a free gift! The taxing mental task reduced the drinks they tended to endure – 2 cups versus 8 cups. In the next experiment, participants were randomly given a taxing task or not and then asked to submerge their arm in 1 °C water. The upshot, wearied subjects lasted 30 s compared with 60 s. I can't imagine writing that IRB request. My favorite experiment involved testing the participants to see how long they would passively wait before alerting the experimenter to equipment failure. In this experiment they were testing two things: Mental depletion and also how creating positive anticipation for a task reduced mental effort. The upshot was that alert people quickly helped out and that positive anticipation only works when only a few choices are involved. But when burdened with too many choices its mitigating effect is cancelled.

It was an enjoyable article to read with interesting tidbits such as "consumers who faced 24 options, as opposed to 6 options, were less willing to decide to buy anything at all, and those who did buy were less satisfied with their purchase." This reminds me of choice architecture in Nudge. A great book I intend to review.


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What Do Happy People Do?

posted Jan 12, 2012, 10:41 AM by Geoffrey Edelmann   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 8:10 AM ]

On the topic of happiness, I am reminded of an article I read many years ago entitled "What Do Happy People Do?" by John P. Robinson and Steven Martin. The paper focused on comparing daily activities with personal happiness. 

Generally, engaging in social activities is associated with happiness. Happy people are especially likely to socialize with friends and relatives and attend religious services. They also like to read the newspaper.

Unhappy people watch a lot of TV. They apparently surf the web a lot too and don't have sex enough. They often don't have a job.

Happy people tend to be on the busy side. With unhappiness found in moderate to gross amounts of down time. However, unhappiness was found in the extreme of being rushed. So don't over do it.

Correlation does not prove causation. It stands to reason that when you are already unhappy, it is hard to make the effort to be social. By the same token, can an unhappy person become happy by getting out there, reading, and cutting back on TV?


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The Microeconomics of Happiness

posted Dec 21, 2011, 7:52 AM by Geoffrey Edelmann   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 8:13 AM ]

The purpose of life is to achieve happiness. Happiness is our birthright. We know that lasting happiness must be achieved by each and every individual; yet the microeconomics question to address is how do we foster happiness as a society? What policies will lead the world to greater happiness and how should we measure that happiness? The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being by Carol Graham tries to answer these questions.

Life Satisfaction and GDP per Capita 1998-2008
Life satisfaction GDP per Capita, Select Countries, 1998-2008
Figure 1: Money seems to overcome certain factors of unhappiness. However, it is not necessary as illustrated by Latin countries which, are quite happy given their GDP. From The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being by Carol Graham


Experimental Method

For the most part, all results are based on self-survey (not very reliable) though there are some metrics such as the number of smiles per day. However, even smiling varies by culture, so corrections are made by country, religion, and race. Still, it is very hard to tease out how inherently happy an individual is without longitudinal studies.

Experimental Results

Money makes an individual happy, to a point. Money can relieve much day to day stress e.g. living by paycheck. But after our needs are met it stops providing relief. The happiness of money is not absolute, it is relative to our peers.

Money makes societies happy, to a point. See Figure 1.

People get happier as they age, to a point. There are many reasons, for example getting the kids out of the nest and you no longer have to schmooze. You also don't have to stress about how far you will go in your career (i.e. the anxiety of choice).

Unhappiness factors include such obvious things as crime, corruption, or illness to being obese and living in a rural area.

Adaptation

One of the most powerful factors in human happiness is adaptation – the ability to cope with current status. The author contends that adaptation is a good thing for an individual and bad for a society. People quickly adapt to poverty, crime, etc, and become complacent. This is a good thing for individual stress and unhappiness, but bad for driving us to national betterment. By the same token, the happiness of a sudden increase in money, status, or health is also fleeting; we adapt to the new norm. In fact, people adapt to a salary gain within a year and a promotion within 5 years.

Uncertainty

Best Possible Life and the Dow Jones Industrial Average 2008-2009
Best Possible Life and Dow Jones Industrial Average Figure 2: Would you prefer certain suffering or uncertain happiness? From The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being by Carol Graham


Related to adaptation is uncertainty. Would you believe that people prefer certain suffering over uncertain happiness? Apparently nothing makes people more agitated than change. Figure 2 depicts the DJIA (black) versus time about the stock market crisis of 2008. As expected, the happiness index (gray) goes down during the crisis. But despite the fact that the DJIA doesn't make a significant recovery, happiness does. This is due to the fact that people are made more miserable by turbulence than stability. The corollary to this, is our government should strive for slow, certain, growth even if that overall growth is less than would be possible if greater variability is allowed.

Happy Peasants and Frustrated Achievers Paradox

Although people generally get happier with money, there is a surprising paradox: penniless people are happy and the filthy rich are miserable. In the explanation, the author and I part ways. She contends that the peasants simply don't know how miserable they should be and that the rich are burdened with the knowledge of all that could be achieved but hasn't been. She even ponders the morality of educating peasants about how unhappy they should be (to break the adaptation cycle). Personally, I think she has simply discovered something that monks and mendicants realized long ago, a absolute poverty sets you free. When you let go of the idea of owning a few things, you own all things. Conversely the more you have, the more you fear losing it. Anecdocally, I have met blissful holy men and wretched millionaires. Perhaps the author simply hasn't known many rich people personally.

The Pursuit of Happiness

How should America help its citizens move forward? Should our government encourage the equal opportunity to happiness or equal outcome at happiness? Graham reminds us of the Declaration of Independence, ingrained in our politics, suggest the former as our course of action.

In Conclusion

I highly recommend this book. In this brief summary I left out a lot. There is a lengthy discussion on the difference between temporary happiness (e.g. watching TV) and long term happiness (playing an instrument). Should society encourage us to suffer the short term frustration of practice for the long term benefits of achieving mastery of a second language? But people also need to stop and smell the roses and have daily happiness too. As a critique, the book feels more like several publications stapled together and not a single cogent story. However, the resulting repetition aided the absorption of material so unfamiliar to me.

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Gold Medal Winner

posted Dec 20, 2011, 7:01 AM by Geoffrey Edelmann   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 8:15 AM ]

With my first post, I would like to congratulate my mentor Bill Kuperman for winning the prestigious Gold Medal award of the Acoustical Society of America. It will be officially announced at the upcoming Hong Kong meeting. The medal is for outstanding contributions in the field of acoustics and for great contributions to the society. Bill is not only a former president of the society but a friend, collaborator, and helper to everyone he meets. Bill was just given the 2011 Munk Award at the last meeting. Congratulations on a great year!

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