Friday, November 21, 2008

The Other Side of Green

This week, in an email conversation, a friend mentioned the well known saying that grass is always greener on the other side. We have all heard this saying before, but this time when I heard it, I went into a long chain of thoughts. "Why is grass always greener on the other side?" "Is grass greener on the other side because we can't see the dead dry grass from far, or is it because we have a propensity of looking towards grass that is only greener?" There are certainly no easy answers to these questions. I guess, when we get bored and tired of our regular existence, fantasizing about attractive alternatives provides us some kind of comfort. Often though, these alternatives are attractive only in our imagination; in reality, the greenest pastures have huge problems that aren't just visible from outside. It may also be true that we as human beings are more tuned to looking in the greener direction, because it has aspirational value. As my friend mentioned in her reply to my thoughts, "Nobody bothers for the barren lands. All have eyes only for the lush green fields - symbol of prosperity."

Business and economics literature emphasize that we decide on action paths that maximize utility. In simple words, we pursue paths that we deem attractive and desirable; we avoid paths that may be painful; we take decisions based on "what's in it for me?"; we do things that will be instrumental in achieving what we want. Such instrumentality and "rationality" in our decisions has certainly made us more successful and prosperous, but we are not any happier than before. Achieving or acquiring something that we want and value, certainly enhances our happiness, but only for a short time - soon the elevated levels of happiness taper off and we are back at where we started; the grass that was green earlier isn't anymore - disillusioned, we start looking around for greener pastures. Most certainly we find them; only problem is that they are often not actually greener - they just appear to be so. Even when the new pasture is really greener, and we succeed in acquiring it, our satisfaction of acquiring it doesn't last too long.

What do we do then? Should we continue on an eternal quest of greener pastures, or should we stop and rethink our priorities? I do see a lot of people around me who seem to be on this eternal quest; they decide on what to do primarily based on how it could lead to some outcomes that they value; if they see that their actions won't lead to any outcome that they value, they prefer focusing their attention elsewhere. For example, I have never seen any Indian MBA student at my university, participating in activities meant towards the development of India. Of course, it's possible that I may have missed them at any of the AID (Association for India's Development) events, but from what I hear from my friends working with AID, the involvement of MBAs has been virtually Nil. My hypothesis is that training in business and economics, has turned MBAs into "rational" instrumentalists, who are always striving to maximize utility. Business and economics students are, according to some research studies too, the least active in any kind of social development activities.

I am not arguing here that "rationalists" and instrumentalists are bad, or that they are unhappy people. In fact, they may be happier than regular unambitious folks, mostly because instrumentality orientation may lead to more success at workplace. Instrumental actions when lead to valued outcomes, surely, enhance our life satisfaction; the question is, "For how long?" It is impossible to succeed always in our quests; when we fail, won't we need our loved ones around. It becomes especially problematic if we have been involved in our ambitious quests to the exclusion of our loved ones; this then may lead to the development of a feeling of emptiness despite success.

Is love the secret of happiness then? I would say, "No." Investing in your loved ones is not without risks. That's because our loved ones have a mind of their own, or develop one as they mature; they have their own set of needs and aspirations. Hence, they will not always be with us, and may leave us for greener pastures. Loss of a loved one - through death or separation - is several times more painful than any career-related losses.

The answer then, may lie in the ancient Hindu wisdom of moderation. Exclusive focus on anything - even if it is the the best thing - can lead to a lot of pain in the long run. You may say, "who cares about long run?" I agree, we are all dead in the long run; thus, it may seem like nothing matters in the long run, but I think the reverse is actually true. Because we will be all dead in the long run, it makes sense to focus our energy on doing things that will make our short life meaningful. If I die tomorrow, I don't think anyone, a year from now, will remember my career and extra-curricular accomplishments, but if I did even a small difference in a person's life, I will be alive in that person's heart for a much longer time. I don't want to downplay accomplishments - I think they do matter; accomplishments are definitely remembered if they affect other people's lives, or if are huge and out of the ordinary. But, for most of us ordinary folks, the key is in doing meaningful work that makes at least a small difference in some people's lives - we may not even be remembered for long, but at least, we will have the satisfaction of having done our part before leaving this world.

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