Thursday, December 02, 2004

Counting Blessings? Don't Forget to Tally What Doesn't Irk You

Counting Blessings? Don't Forget to Tally What Doesn't Irk You

Cubicle Culture by Jared Sandberg

The Wall Street Journal November 24, 2004

If you're in the average office, it's likely that someone else there has more wits, money and square footage than you. Nonetheless, you could try this Thanksgiving to be thankful for what you do have. Or, even better, try a more foolproof approach: being thankful for what you don't have.

Vige Barrie, a marketing director at a New York college, says she's thankful she no longer has to attend conferences wearing the same outfits as her colleagues. "When I worked for a large corporation in Dallas," she says, "we all had to wear cowboy hats and belt buckles."

She's thankful, too, that she doesn't have to do any more embarrassing role-playing for a company that used to require salespeople to act out the proper way to make a pitch and then watch a video of it.

Most of all, Ms. Barrie is relieved that her current employer doesn't make employees go through a rope course. That's a team-building exercise that involves a web of ropes through which employees push their skinniest colleagues, and -- with a little luck and lots of humiliation -- their largest colleagues, too. "I just have this aversion to thinking about it," Ms. Barrie says.

You can consider being thankful that you don't have to do what you don't want to do an alternate route to gratitude. Or, as some elderly relatives are wont to point out in the face of thankless whining, "At least you're not dead!"

It's the approach that even Buddha implicitly endorsed: "Let us rise up and be thankful," he said, "for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die."

It's like thanking heaven for little hells, and the beauty of it is that you aren't left with mere gratitude. It's gratitude spiked with one of the most nirvanic and intoxicating of all emotions: relief.

M.J. Ryan, a business consultant and the author of "Attitudes of Gratitude," says that the practice of gratitude stimulates the brain's left prefrontal cortex, where hope, optimism and appreciation reside. That, in turn, tickles the limbic system into releasing feel-good endorphins. But some people -- say, jaded desk monkeys -- arrive at that feeling by way of their right neocortex, which is a hotbed of worry, frustration and pessimism. "For some of us," she says, "the habit of thinking about what's right is so noningrained that the way you get there is thinking about what's not wrong."

And that's arguably a straighter path to happiness. In a 1981 study, people who were asked to complete the sentence "I'm glad I'm not a..." five times were significantly more satisfied with their lives than the people who were asked to complete "I wish I were a..." five times. It's called "downward comparison," and it's a real upper. In fact, Ms. Ryan notes, "the people who completed the 'I wish I were a...' sentence rated themselves as significantly more dissatisfied than they had been merely minutes earlier."

Financial analyst Michael Collet says he's thankful that "no one knows how little work I actually do." And now that his reason for being thankful just evaporated, he's also grateful to live in Des Moines, which he believes offers a kind of built-in career safety net: "No one else wants to work here," he says, "so I'd have to screw up pretty badly to get fired!"

Josette Williams, a 70-year-old freelance editor of management-training texts, is grateful for the "technology" she no longer has to use. "I am old enough to be truly thankful I never have to deal with carbon paper any more," she says. In fact, let's all pause here for a moment to acknowledge that computers are easier to write with than chisels, albeit less reliable.

Lewis Regenstein, an environmental author, is grateful he doesn't have to travel much anymore because "in the time and energy you expend, you could write a book or solve the Mideast crisis." Similarly, he's happy he now has fewer meetings to attend. He once fell asleep in a meeting and drooled on his tie. "I don't normally drool, but I did on this particular occasion," he says.

Brian Winn, a district vice president for a nonprofit group, is thankful for his view of the parking lot. "It could have been a landfill," he notes. He's also grateful he has his own office so that no one notices when he takes off his shoes. (And I'm betting his colleagues also are thankful he has his own office when he takes off his shoes.)

Cliff Strickland, who used to work for a major bank, is happy he doesn't have to take seminars any more, such as one called "Leading from the Middle." As best he can remember, it was a multiday seminar in which midlevel employees were supposed to design a product and then role play managing up to their bosses to ensure the item was properly produced. "Everyone kind of played it serious," he recalls. "I was struggling with it."

It should go without saying that Mr. Strickland also expresses gratitude that in his current job "humiliation isn't part of the plan."

And if you, dear reader, work in a place where it is, here's hoping your list of what's not wrong is very long.

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