Lies, damn lies, and statistics?

In a quote variously attributed to Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli, lies are described as lies, damn lies and statistics.  In fact, statistics are just numerical ways of expressing things and have no particular valence, but they can certainly be used to mislead people, and when they’re presented without clarification they can easily be misunderstood.

A good example is the report on the recent Happiness of New Zealand Survey.  Taken at face value, the findings suggest that going to live in Nelson will make you happy, since over 40% of the people in the survey who live there gave ratings of 9 or 10 (out of 10) on the scale.  Retired people and those aged over 65 or preferably over 75 were also happiest.   However, Nelson is renowned as a favoured retirement destination, so are people in Nelson happier because they live there, or because they’ve retired and/or are over 75?

These questions can be disentangled by using more sophisticated statistics, but there’s really a more important question: who wants to wait until they’re 75 to be happy?  Average life expectancy in New Zealand is around 76 years for men and 81 years for women, so if you’re a man you’ll have about a year’s happiness to enjoy.  A bit better if you’re a woman: 6 years.

In my previous blog I questioned the nonsensical phrase ‘work-life balance’, since it means that at work you don’t have a life.  Unfortunately, what the Survey does suggest is that people are happier when they’ve retired, which is a very sad state of affairs.  Why do people have so little job satisfaction?  In my experience as a business psychologist it isn’t really to do with the job itself - there are relatively few jobs that are so intrinsically unpleasant.  A much more likely cause is bad management.

Interviewed by Radio Live about the Survey, I pointed out that much of what passes for management training is about procedures, and trained monkeys can learn procedures.  What trainee managers seldom learn is the complex – but learnable – skill of managing people.  Take a look at the structural diagrams that companies produce: pretty pictures with job titles, usually arranged in a hierarchical tree.  Job titles are easy to specify, but they’re actually people, and that means having the skills of a counsellor to manage them.  If you’re not prepared to learn these skills you don’t deserve to be a manager, and the members of your team are very unlikely to be happy.

If you’re a manger reading this, perhaps you’re of the view that the only way to get people to do anything is wave sticks or pay more.  There’s plenty of evidence that neither of these strategies really works.  So if you’re wondering what happiness has to do with it, the answer’s ‘everything’: happy people work better, happy people stay.

The fact is that happiness isn’t tomorrow or yesterday, happiness is now.  What makes us unhappy is dwelling on what we lack in order to make us happy, but happiness isn’t about having things, its about letting go of the negative emotion we endlessly dwell on, the ‘worst things in my life that never happened’.  The Radio Live interview was shared with Sarah Trotman, a small-to-medium enterprise support specialist, and when asked for our one key factor for staying happy, she said remaining passionate about what you do.  I said ‘letting go’.  These might sound incompatible, but not so: the passion and excitement about what you do is the greatest motivating factor there is, but if you don’t also remember to let go of the rough that comes with the smooth, your success will be at the cost of happiness.