The Lonely Worker

lonely office

In four years, my law firm went from me and my laptop to $800,000 and climbing, and suddenly we were twelve of us in newly decked out offices complete with $100,000 in telecommunications and electronics upgrades.

Obviously we’d hit a sweet spot, and we were having fun. We laughed a lot. We ate together, visited each other’s homes. We took firm ski days and watched the Rockies at Coors Field. We had crazy non-policies like “take as much vacation as you need to come to work refreshed.” We had the coolest Christmas event ever. And we did kick-ass legal work.

But then the numbers got bigger and I got serious. An accountant said our vacation policy was unsustainable — we needed one, in a real live employee manual. I wrote one but never had the heart to show it to anyone. We sat in meetings with consultants formulating heartless strategic plans we all ignored. We had an employee retreat that was just plain weird.

The worst thing I took seriously was myself. I totally blew the lesson basketball Hall-of-Famer and Orlando Magic founder Pat William put in the title of his book Humility:  The Secret Ingredient of Success. Time and chance had favored us — I’d stumbled  into doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Work had often been a rollicking, happy social occasion. But then I decided I must  have been responsible for it, and paved Paradise, put up a parking lot, and didn’t know what we had ‘til it was gone.

We’d been in our new offices one week. My wife and I had flown  back the day before from a cushy five-day CLE at a resort in San Diego, and I was heading out to visit our new satellite office when the phone rang. It was the associate-soon-to-be-partner  we’d put in charge. “There’s something going on you need to know about,” he said.

The date was September 11th. The second plane had just hit the second tower.

Our clients — mostly small businesses — got hammered in the mini-recession that followed. As a result, so did we. I sought advice from two Denver law firm icons. They were sympathetic — they’d done that, too — expanded too much too quickly and paid for it in a downturn. A couple other people said you have to let people go — I followed their advice and let one person go — a move I mourn to this day. That’s when I decided we’ll survive or go down, but we’re doing it together.

We limped along until January 2004, when the new leader of our major referral source called to say they were “moving in a new direction” and March 31st would be the date we were officially toast. For the next three months I wrote job recommendations, we gave people their furniture and computers, sold the rest, archived files….

When I went to the office on April 1st (April Fool’s Day), the place echoed. I’d never felt so lonely in my life. Rotten timing, victim of circumstance, happens to everyone… yeah maybe, but all I could think was I miss my friends.

We don’t usually associate loneliness with work. We ought to, says Emily Esfahani-Smith in her book The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters. She cites findings that 20% consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” that 1/3 of Americans 45 of older say they’re lonely, and that close relationships at work are a major source of meaning. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy agrees and then some:

“There is good reason to be concerned about social connection in our current world. Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.

“Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.

“In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.

“At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making. For our health and our work, it is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.

“And even working at an office doesn’t guarantee meaningful connections: People sit in an office full of coworkers, even in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level are scarce.

“Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships? On average, we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our families. But do they know what we really care about? Do they understand our values? Do they share in our triumphs and pains?

“These aren’t just rhetorical questions; from a biological perspective, we evolved to be social creatures. Over thousands of years, the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.”

Work And The Loneliness Epidemic: Reducing Isolation At Work Is Good For Business, Harvard Business Review (2017)

He offers these remedies:

  • Evaluate the current state of connections in your workplace.
  • Build understanding of high-quality relationships.
  • Make strengthening social connections a strategic priority in your organization.
  • Create opportunities to learn about your colleagues’ personal lives.

And, he might have added, you might want to rethink your stingy vacation policy.

For more, see Work Loneliness and Employee Performance, Academy of Management Proceedings (2011).

If you like this blog, you might enjoy the new Iconoclast.blog, which explores several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook,

Something Rotten in Denmark

The lack of belief that our lives are meaningful is spiking suicide rates in wealthy First World countries whose citizens say they’re generally happy with their lives.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
Marcellus, Hamlet Act I Scene 4

Last time, we considered some of the findings of a huge international survey of money, happiness, wealth, and meaning conducted by Gallup and a couple University of Virginia professors. Digging deeper:

“One of the most disturbing findings involved suicide rates. Wealthier nations, it turns out, had significantly higher suicide rates than poorer ones. For example, the suicide rate of Japan, where per-capita GDP was $34,000, was more than twice as high as that of Sierra Leone, where per-capita GDP was $400.

“The strange relationship between happiness and suicide has been confirmed in other research, too. Happy countries like Denmark and Finland also have high rates of suicide.

“[The survey authors revealed] a striking trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning—or, more precisely, the lack of it. The countries with the lowest rates of meaning, like Japan, also had some of the highest suicide rates.”

From The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith (2017)

The Power of Meaning cites further data showing that:

  • Suicide rates are generally higher in wealthier countries than in poorer ones.
  • According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased 60% since World War II.
  • In 2016, worldwide suicide rates were the highest in 30 years.
  • In the U.S., suicide among 15-24 year-olds tripled from 1950-2000.
  • Among the middle-aged, suicide rates have increased by over 40% since the turn of the 21st century.

The lack of belief that our lives are meaningful is spiking suicide rates — especially in wealthy First World countries whose citizens say they’re generally happy with their lives. The 2017 World Happiness Report confirmed these findings:  Denmark ranked #2 in the list of happiest countries, and Finland was #5, yet both countries had high rates of suicide.

The World Happiness Report is no lightweight exercise in psychobabble — it is generated on the highest level of worldwide policy making. This is how it describes its origins:

HR17_3_cover_small-232x300The first World Happiness Report was published in April, 2012, in support of the UN High Level Meeting on happiness and well-being. Since then the world has come a long way. Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. In June 2016 the OECD committed itself “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts.” In February 2017, the United Arab Emirates held a full-day World Happiness meeting, as part of the World Government Summit. Now on World Happiness Day, March 20th, we launch the World Happiness Report 2017, once again back at the United Nations, again published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and now supported by a generous three-year grant from the Ernesto Illy Foundation.

The Report is long and packed with statistical analysis, tables, graphs, and other data-nerd content, but if you’re game for it, it makes for fascinating reading.

Both the UVA/Gallup survey and the World Happiness Report revealed that dissatisfaction with work is a key contributor to the feeling that life lacks meaning, and to the escalating suicide rate.

Imagine how different the legal profession would be if it sought to promote not just the happiness of its members (that would be radical enough!) but also a sense of meaningfulness about working in the law.

We’ll be talking more about that.

For a summary of the UVA/Gallup study, see ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013:  “Residents of poorer nations find greater meaning in life.” For the original study, see S. Oishi, E. Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, 2013. You can request a reprint here.

Money, Happiness, Wealth, and Meaning

The ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to one vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

One reason money doesn’t make us happy is the stress of making it. The following is from Plutocrats:  The Rise of the new Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland (2012):

plutocrats“Until a few years ago, the reigning theory about money and happiness was the Easterlin paradox, the 1974 finding by Richard Easterlin that, beyond a relatively low threshold more money didn’t make you happier.

“But across countries, what millions of immigrants have always known to be true really is:  the people of rich countries are generally happier than the people of poor countries.

“The latest contrarian finding, however, is that moving to that state of greater wealth and greater happiness is decidedly unpleasant. As Angus Deaton, in a review of the 2006 Gallup World Poll, concluded, ‘Surprisingly, at any given level of income, economic growth is associated with lower reported levels of life satisfaction.’”

Freeland also cites Angus Deaton for showing that “the richer you are, the more covetous you become” — not a likely prescription for happiness.

A 2014 U of Virginia/ Gallup study weighed in with similar findings — Emily Esfahani Smith discussed them in The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, (2017:

power of meaning“Though the study was enormous, involving nearly 140,000 people across 132 countries, it was also straightforward. A few years earlier, researchers from Gallup had asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their lives, and whether they felt their lives had an important purpose or meaning. [Prof. Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of Gallup] analyzed that data by country, correlating the levels of happiness and meaning with variables like wealth, rates of suicides, and other social factors.

“Their findings were surprising. People in wealthier regions, like Scandinavia, reported being happier than those in poorer ones, like sub-Saharan Africa. But when it came to meaning, it was a different story. Wealthy places like France and Hong Kong had some of the lowest levels of meaning, while the poor nations of Togo and Niger had among the highest, even though people living there were some of the unhappiest in the study.

I.e., the ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to this vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

Analogizing from these findings to the legal profession, we would expect that, because the legal profession runs on the higher side of financial wellbeing, lawyers would report higher levels of happiness than less well-paid workers, but would also suffer from meaning malaise. And, since one of the wellbeing factors used in the survey was rates of suicide, we would also expect lawyers to have a correspondingly higher rate of suicide.

The high lawyer suicide rate (third highest among professionals, after doctors and dentists) has been well documented, and as we’ve been seeing, lawyers as a whole aren’t generally happy with their lives either, despite their profession’s higher rate of wealth.

We’ll look more into the meaning part of the equation next time.

Richard Easterlin is a professor of economics at USC. Sir Angus Stewart Deaton, FBA, is a British American economist and professor at Princeton. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.

For a summary of the UVA/Gallup study, see ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013:  “Residents of poorer nations find greater meaning in life.” For the original study, see S. Oishi, E. Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, 2013