Seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described the natural state of human life as “nasty, brutish and short.” A study co-authored by a Darden professor examines whether the layperson agrees with the Hobbesian view of life. Working with a team of three other colleagues, Professor Lalin Anik of Darden’s Marketing area wanted to know whether most people viewed life as short or long, and hard or easy. And she wanted to see if these views affect people’s happiness and their engagement in civic and other activities in everyday life.
Anik and her colleagues found that across diverse samples, the most popularly held view was that life was short and hard. Moreover, this view was associated with lower levels of happiness, civic engagement and optimism about the future.
By contrast, the view that life is long and easy was relatively rare, held by less than 10 percent of the population, and was associated with greater happiness.
The study also showed how closely these life philosophies are linked to civic engagement, especially in regards to charitable donations and volunteering. The study found that those who held the long-easy philosophy were more likely to report volunteering and donating money than those who supported the short-hard philosophy, and were also marginally more likely to vote.
While these findings may have broader social implications, Anik believes they could have myriad applications in business.
In terms of employee morale, for example, Anik noted that if a manager knows most employees at the company believe life is short and hard, then she can take steps to shift those employees’ perspectives.
“It might be beneficial for a manager to shift employees’ perception from life is short and hard to life is long and easy, as such a positive view could make for happier employees. Just as ‘long and easy’ people are happier and more generous with their time, happier employees might be more willing to help each other or stay for overtime, and such generosity with individual resources would make for a happier workplace. And I’d speculate that this shift might even extend to improved perceptions of the workplace; for example, it might prime employees to believe that their relationship with the company will be long and easy and full of opportunities for new projects and promotions,” Anik said, extrapolating that employees who view life as long and easy might also view their careers as long and easy. Conversely, employees who view life or their careers as short and hard might be more likely to feel pessimistic about taking on new projects or achieving long-term goals.
While more work remains to be done on understanding how to shift people’s perspectives, Anik noted that a simple change in language can have a big impact. Namely, using language that conveys the long-easy philosophy can influence people’s thinking.
“The way you communicate with employees can trigger these primes of longevity or ease,” Anik said, adding, “It might not be just through telling them that life is long, but it might be giving them the sensation that days ahead are long or opportunities are forthcoming.”
While changing communication strategies or shifting employee emotions might feel less effective in terms of increasing job satisfaction than, say, giving someone a raise, Anik and her colleagues noted in their study that, broadly speaking, how people view their lives is an important predictor of their subjective well-being, over and above their objective life circumstances.
To put it simply, the study found that people who hold the view that life is short and hard saw themselves as more likely to experience bad things such as misfortunes and health problems in the future, regardless of whether they had experienced good things or bad things in the past.
So an employee who received a raise but who subscribed to the short-hard philosophy might still expect bad things to happen in the future, whether that means getting passed over for a promotion or getting fired. By contrast, an employee who sees life as long and easy would be more optimistic about his or her future, regardless of whether he or she had received a pay bump.
Beyond employee happiness and retention, Anik noted managers can also use these life philosophies to attract new customers or reduce their operating costs. As examples, she pointed to the insurance and banking sectors.
“If I am an insurance company, is it better for my potential consumers to think life is short and hard, or long and easy, so they invest in themselves, in their future, in their health?” she questioned. And getting people to invest in their long-term health would not only be good business for insurance providers, but would also be good business for any company looking to lower the cost of providing insurance for its employees.
“The applications might even extend to investment decisions. If am a bank, I am wondering how I can get people to invest in their savings accounts,” Anik said, adding that a person who views life as long and easy might be more interested in planning for retirement.
With the elections right around the corner, there is no greater time than today to start shifting our focus and that of those around us toward a more optimistic view. A “long and easy” view on life will not only make people happier — it will also make them more civically engaged, be it at the workplace or out in the world!
Lalin Anik co-authored “Is Life Nasty, Brutish and Short? Philosophies of Life and Well-Being,” which appeared in Social Psychological and Personality Science, with Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, Lara B. Aknin of Simon Fraser University and Elizabeth W. Dunn of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.