Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Few Obstacles To Playing To Your Strengths

Ed Diener is America's foremost psychologist researching human happiness. In a 2003 study, he and Shigehiro Oishi discovered that European and Asian Americans behaved differently when choosing tasks to perform.

The European Americans typically picked tasks they were good at, while the Asian Americans were significantly more likely to ignore whether they were good at something when choosing whether to do it. Diener and Oishi further discovered that over time the European Americans expressed greater happiness with their tasks than the Asian Americans. That is, both groups were given a choice what tasks to perform, but only the European Americans picked tasks that made them happy.

Given a choice, why would anyone not choose to do what makes them happy?

Unfortunately, not everyone in this strange world has the option of fully playing to their strengths. It seems in many cases the reasons for that are economic. I would guess the need to earn a living, combined with a lack of opportunities for doing so, has probably forced more people into jobs and lives that play to their weaknesses than perhaps any other single factor. Just imagine how many immensely talented people in the long course of human history have been street beggars because the society and economy they lived in provided them with little or no opportunity to do anything else! Yet, even in wealthy nations today many people find themselves going into jobs where they cannot make full use of their talents and skills, but must to one great extent or another play to their weaknesses.

Besides economics, many social and cultural factors can pressure people into opting for a job or life that does not play to their strengths and leaves them less happy than they would otherwise be. The classic example of that is the social and cultural oppression of women. Until recently, most societies allowed women very few choices in life. And minorities within a society often face similar restrictions.

A third set of factors are probably psychological. A few years ago, the Surgeon General of the United States released a startling report that concluded one in five Americans was mentally or emotionally ill. A symptom of many disorders is anhedonism -- that is, an aversion to pleasure. People who suffer anhedonism are more likely to seek things that make them unhappy than things that make them happy. Although I don't know what percentage of the population suffers from anhedonism, it seems likely enough that it could be a few million of us.

While playing to our strengths is a significant source of happiness, not all of us do so for many and various reasons -- some of which I've touched on.


Nita said...

Hey, thats a very thoughtful write-up! What you said is so true in the Indian context. Here, making a living is so important that people choose careers based on returns rather than their talents. Parents generally encourage this behavior. Male children are particularly under pressure. About the factor of deliberating choosing things that makes you unhappy, I am not sure. People often find happiness through hobbies.
btw, for some reason both the comments you left on my blog had gone into spam. the spam filter doesn't always work correctly at wordpress.

amuirin said...

Is that true? The anhedonism thing? It sounds like a joke... and yet.


ordinarygirl said...

That's an interesting study. Did it say what the overriding factor was for Asian Americans (was it mostly economic)?

Paul said...

Thank you, Nita! I recall Aristotle once said something that can be translated as, "At the juncture where your talents cross with the needs of the world, there you will find your passion in life." To me, that is the ideal. That is what to look for, and I hope for a world that will someday allow everyone to find their "juncture".

BTW, I was wondering what happened to my posts the other day -- it wasn't just your blog, but almost every wordpress blog I went to that day was doing the same thing.

Hi Amuirin! Anhedonism or anhedonia is most prevalent in depressive mood disorders and is characterized by a loss of interest in or pleasure from activities you once enjoyed -- including work, hobbies, school, family activities, sex, etc.

When I checked the internet, I could not find anything that specifically linked anhedonism to making choices to avoid pleasure. But that is something I noticed I did when I suffered from depression a while back. At the very least, I became dismissive of pleasurable activities as frivolous activities. So, I think anhedonism might go deeper in some people than merely an inability to take pleasure in things.

Hi Ordinary Girl! No, the study didn't say what caused the difference in behavior between European and Asian Americans. It would have been interesting if they had gotten into that.

Priyank said...

I agree its a cultural thing. Perhaps because eastern cultures are so collectivist that inspite of their American upbringing the asian subjects made that choice.
Your post made me think about some things. hmm...