The Courage of Our Conniptions

Musings on religion, politics and other unmentionables.

The High Cost of Agreeability

Agreeability and work life balance, penalty or premium?

It's no secret that we're descended from Chimpanzees and partial heirs to their competitive hierarchical structures, so why am I so shocked at the occasional impulse to gnash my teeth while clicking the obligatory Facebook 'like' on a colleague's accomplishment?

Envy, the slight, hollow sense that an imbalance requiring immediate correction has occurred, is often triggered when childish expectations of fairness and equality are toppled by another's advantage (real or perceived) or dumb luck. It's a fairly universal phenomenon, but for people who took grade school maxims like, "It's nice to be important but more important to be nice" to heart, it's a very uncomfortable experience.

According to Leon Festinger's classic 1954 paper on social comparison, people are innately driven to assess their opinions and abilities against others. In the rare event that an objective criterion like a timed mile is available, there might be less social comparison; but for the most part, we sort ourselves (and are sorted) into communities of roughly equal social means and ability and proceed in an equilibrium-seeking upward trajectory from there. We tend to compete with others from our perceived peer group, as opposed to, say, Jonathan Franzen or Tina Fey—though I suppose the truly masochistic could compare themselves to their personal heroes at their current age as a bench mark. The drive to work a little harder when threatened by another's success is thought by evolutionary psychologist David Buss to be part of an ancestral strategy which selected for competitive individuals, leaving more complacent peers behind. It makes sense on both group and individual levels and isn't necessarily a bad thing. Someone in your peer group gets ahead, which triggers several responses: You work a little harder to achieve a similar goal for yourself, denigrate the peer through gossip or some form of social punishment (the one aspect which ideally would be avoided), or find a less competitive peer group—big fish small pond.

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In other words, it's exciting be admitted to Harvard, but then you'll have to contend with a lifetime of peers competing for phenomenal amounts of success. By the time you get your book published (or whatever your personal pot of gold may be), it won't seem nearly as earth shattering as you thought it would at nineteen, particularly when compared to the phenomenal success of friend/competitor X! They don't call it the hedonic tread-mill for nothing, and once you get on, it's hard to know when to hop off. To make matters worse, research in hedonic habituation shows that people as divergent as lottery winners and paraplegics tend to revert to a relative happiness set point after about 6 months. So, the good news is, you'll be about as happy as you've always been, regardless. The bad news is....well, you get the picture.

Like weight, our temperaments are largely set by genetics. However, 40% of happiness is still within our control (50% goes to genes with the other 10% determined by circumstance). Surprisingly, it isn't winning the big prize that makes us happy in the long run. Habits like engaging in the present through 'flow' activities, mindfulness, gratitude and committing to goals have a much greater bearing on our well-being. While the general premise of the hedonic treadmill holds true, more recent research suggests that the picture is more complex: Individuals have varying set points which can change over time, and events such as being widowed or divorced can bring about a lasting change in life satisfaction.

The jury is still out on what social media is doing to our brains, but like cell phones and e-mail, its ever increasing social saturation ensures that it's probably here to stay. The online community has been likened to the new 'town square,' and the proliferation of niche media is eating away at the culture-consolidating venues of old. Everyone short of chart-topping figures like Jonathan Franzen or Mark Zuckerburg is virtually forced to be their own publicist. Our news feeds are weird pastiches of baby pictures, party pictures, your aunt's pot roast recipe, updates from publications and groups you decided to 'like' at one point, and personal 'press-releases' on colleagues' projects. With little else to do during the lull of any given work day, the novelty seeking brain is drawn again and again to the ever shifting feed of e-mail and Facebook. 

Alexandra Robbins, author of The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, noted that with social media, the cafeteria—that living, breathing matrix of bad pot roast and status negotiation—now follows students 24/7. The same could be said of their adult counterparts. Immersed in social media, you never really leave the rat race behind. The occupational stress that historically only surfaced at meetings, promotion time, or upon seeing a competitor's name in print is now a part of our daily (sometimes hourly) lives.

The breezy updates usually don't address the relentless effort, the wrenching child care decisions, the varying degrees of capitulation to fads and market trends, the pervasive social manipulation or "impression management" that success often requires. In fact, a recent study showed that the longer individuals spent on Facebook, the more inadequate they tended to feel—particularly when befriending lots of people they didn't know very well. I was always told me not to judge my insides by others' outsides (and that you never knew what people were compensating for). This is particularly true of aquaintances; it's easier to celebrate the successes of a real friend who you know had a bad year or tough road to publication than revel in the endless twitterings of an 'oh-my-god-my-life-is-perfect!!!' acquaintance.

In the age of self-branding and impression management, the old adages take on a kind of life-boat urgency. If all else fails, you can simply 'turn off' the offending Facebook parties and go back to enjoying your cousin's baby pictures. Still, the melange of public and private while liberating at first, can erode whatever feeble gates one has erected as a bullwark against internalized capitalism, turning every facet of life into a zone of competition and achievement. Ironically, the nichedom of it all makes the sought after accomplisments seem less real. Flickering in the spot light one day, swallowed into the rabbit hole the next.

I've long thought that people who found women less competitive than men missed the mark. Confining women to the domestic sphere turned any number of living rooms and family picnics into football fields and battlegrounds—children into extensions, expressions (and occasionally hostages) of a woman's sense of effectiveness, fecundity, vision and worth. (Though I also find motherhood and/or full-time child care can be a true calling for some and spend plenty of hours in child-centered spaces feeling more liberated than confined.) Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be part of a generation that had the option of losing and defining herself in work, thinking this would free me from the indignity of competing with friends and relatives over banalities like how so and so is aging, whose toddler was talking first, whether Melissa had an epidural or went au naturel. Rather, the worlds have simply merged, allowing people to display personal and professional achievements in a newsfeed as fleeting and relentless as the nightly news.

I'm guessing that some are born salesman or were raised in families where the optimal capitalist personality was encouraged. A certain class of people routinely says things like, 'he owns the place' to indicate that their child likes school or had fun at camp. It's hard to know what to make of the ownership mentality if you're not fully of the ownership class. The sense of entitlement seems to be a large component of having the chutzpah to put yourself out there and really make it, but to be honest...it's kind of disturbing and doesn't square with the set of values most of us learned at home, church or school. We probably aren't doing our kids any favors by teaching them to be excellent people and then foisting them onto the open market to figure out the real score for themselves--but what's the alternative? What to teach your children so that they can reach their full potential without sacrificing their personal decency and integrity (assuming they aren't heirs to a sizeable fortune or well-paved path of personal connections, unlocked gates and ushered doors).

My own parents did their middle-class, Midwestern duty of informing me that there would always be someone above me, and there would always be someone below me. Perhaps nice, hard-working people; perhaps terrible people that I didn't like or want to work with, who didn't seem to deserve their success. Having had us before the self-esteem movement of Generation Y took hold, their tendency was one of sturdy Germanic appreciation for physical and mental achievement, with little regard for superlatives and an active disregard for flashy self-promotion. We were told that we were reasonably attractive and reasonably intelligent, warned off braggarts and advised to consider the quieter person with more beneath the surface. Of course, I married a complete extrovert who showers me with superlative praise and pursued a career that seems to require ever increasing amounts of braggadocio (and routinely have to compete with people whose parents seem to have all but hired a Griot); still, I'm grateful for the character formation my Midwestern upbringing provided and note that books like Nurture Shock are now covering "surprising new findings" that excessive praise regarding intelligence, looks and natural ability is damaging.

In their odd way, the rise of movies like Mean Girls has drawn attention to the fact that women are individuals—sometimes very aggressive ones. As with men, disagreeable women often rise through the ranks and achieve greater workplace success as compared with other women—though still less than men who face a stiffer penalty for niceness, relatively speaking. Professionally frustrated 'nice girls' can take grim solace in the fact that they'd still hit the glass ceiling if they had a little more salt with their sugar! To boot, if agreeableness is your problem, there's a good chance you may be doing better in other areas of your life. Our generation is likely to be working well into our seventies if not 'dying in the saddle.' If your field allows, it may be worth it to take your time scrambling up the ladder, leaving more of your relationships and other interests intact. I also take issue with the fact that a woman expected to work for forty or fifty years can't slow way down or take 3-5 years off to have kids (assuming she could afford it) without risking permanent damage to her status as a 'serious professional.' But that's a blog post for another day and of course if any public funds went near the project, Limbaugh would need footage (shudder). I'm guessing he'll add exemptions to his on-demand policies for women over thirty soon, so maybe grown ups will be off the hook!

These are the long-view factors we usually don't consider when glancing through the stream of accomplishments on Facebook. While it takes a bit of reflection, envy can be a tool for moral consideration and refinement. What do we really want and why? What are we willing to give up to get it? Will it really bring us the happiness we crave? This isn't to say that every uber-successful person is secretly evil or miserable, only that there's no free lunch. (Given his 'jack pot' career, Franzen at least did the polite Midwestern thing and talked openly about the personal and professional struggles encountered along the way!) Of course, your genes and the market will impose their inevitable circumstance, as for the other 40%, the trade-offs are worth thinking about the next time you're wrestling with a bout of envy or trying to envision the path you really want to take.

Sarah Estes Graham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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