Is Your Work Ethic Costing You Happiness?

Okay, show of hands: how many of you either grew up hearing “You need to work twice as hard” or figured that out somewhere along the way? The double workload ethic is the story for many who grew up in systems of inequality. It often meant survival in a world that would otherwise serve us up a plate of scraps and tell us how happy we should be that we can eat, at all.

Roots of the Double Workload Ethic

I don’t know many Black families who didn’t teach their children this message. Ditto for folks whose families immigrated to the U.S., whether from South America, South Asia, Southern Europe, or somewhere in-between. We LGBT folk who’ve lived “out” realized this too; as did women who entered the grossly unequal workplaces of the 70s and are still doing so today.

The message was clear: the world will not treat you fairly. To gain anything in life, you’ll need to prove yourself against people who are seeking to disprove you. If I had a dime for every time someone’s sought to disprove me in 30 years living out as transgender, I’d be typing this blog from Tahiti while sipping…whatever Tahitians drink.

Ours is a powerful shared story of survival, then; one that continues to guide us like a beacon toward an imagined future. What that future means isn’t made explicit. Is it a happy retirement in a modest house and with minimal debt: what many were led to believe is the American Dream?

Where the Double Workload Really Ethic Leads

The part that nobody told us is that, virtuous as it is to maintain a double workload ethic, it’s probably never once in the history of oppressed people made any one of us particularly happy. Consider the high incidence of untreated depression, anxiety, compulsive gambling and addiction, as well as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health problems afflicting American workers.

Doubling down on work is not a celebration of life nor of the body in which we live it.

Let’s also consider what the double workload ethic truly does to relationships. Many of us have painted ourselves into a corner with the notion that working extra hard is a necessary sacrifice for our families.

While there’s a clear financial advantage to doing this for the short term, once the urgency was over, how many of you kept the sacrifice going because you couldn’t figure out how to do anything else? How many of you have watched children grow and people pass from your life while you were busy working?

The Power of ‘NO’

What would it mean to you if, just for a minute, you were to entertain a notion that perhaps you have human limitations and a right to work less than is humanly possible? I can sense some of you becoming appalled at this suggestion because it seems so contrary to your beliefs. If you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that the double workload ethic is a lifelong must, it’s a radically different concept I’m suggesting.

If you’re willing to consider that I may be right though, here are some things you can do right now while you’re at your desk on this quick break from work, waiting for your microwaved cup of ramen noodles to cool (don’t spill that on the keyboard. The IT folks get touchy about such things).

  1. Be Grateful. Spend a few minutes thinking about the people whose own work ethics guided you here. If you got here on your own, be grateful for the resilience it took to help you achieve what you have on this day.
  2.  Be Loving. Notice the things that you have in life right now that aren’t your work and which need your focus. Who’s alive in your life right now that really matters most to you? What attention might you be yearning to give this person; and what attention might the person be yearning for from you?
  3. Be Creative. What parts of your life need expansion? Is there a love you have for art, gardening, or another passion that’s calling to you? Perhaps you’ve been putting off experiencing something new: the joy of learning a language, of visiting a nearby museum or garden; or of taking a journey to the mountains, the shore, or a new neighborhood in your own city. Is your dog giving you that “Come on and take me to the dog beach, girl!” kind of look?
  4. Say No. It’s a fun little word. Just two letters. Make it a practice to use it when you’ve reached your limits; and when you’re unwilling to sacrifice time spent loving and creating. Let go of the fear of disappointing someone because chances are, some other Yes person will do what you’re no longer willing to do. The world won’t end without you giving your all; but if you don’t stop saying Yes when you need a No, you’ll lose a lot more than you gain.

My wish is for each of you to experience your humanness fully. Live in this day and enjoy what it means to exist in the life you have, whatever circumstances you’ve created. Consider this day in this life as the ultimate opportunity; for in so many ways, it truly is.

In other words babes, live in the Now.

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