Scott Sonenshein is convinced we’d all be happier if we stretched more.
Sonenshein is an organizational psychologist who spends his days observing how people work, create, parent, play, lead and make decisions. And he’s come to the unwavering conclusion that we’re not doing any of it very well. That’s because, instead of stretching — his counterintuitive concept that urges us to do more with what we have — we’re chasing what we don’t have.
And chasing is making us miserable.
“We just assume that if we had the bigger car, the bigger house, the bigger office” — all classic examples of chasing — “we’d be happier,” said Sonenshein, author of a new book, “Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined.”
“But if you look at the research, that’s not the case. Chasing always leaves us feeling inadequate. You never stop making those comparisons. It sucks a lot of energy and creates a lot of stress to be thinking, ‘I don’t have everything I need.’ ”
It used to be tough enough when we tried to “keep up with the Joneses,” who were living on greener grass on the other side of the fence. Now, thanks to social media, the Joneses are everywhere, inviting us to chase after them every time we log on.
“We learn about Facebook friends who climb mountains and buy expensive clothes and gadgets,” he writes, “but we rarely see posts about the mundane details of time spent waiting at the doctor’s office, paying bills, typing a report at work, or going for an oil change.”
It’s the same at work.
“In our professional circles, LinkedIn provides a similar list of updates about new jobs, promotions, gained credentials. These carefully constructed images designed for public consumption often have unintended (or, in some cases, intended) consequences of triggering comparisons that make people feel bad.”
It’s long past time that we give up the deeply embedded belief that having more — time, stuff, awards, money — will lead to better results.
Such a “dehumanizing rat race,” he said, is impossible to win. True victory, and joy, come with magnifying what we have.
In the workplace, for example, stop comparing the number of ceiling tiles above you compared with your colleague (apparently this is a thing), and ask yourself, “What am I trying to get out of my work?”
If it’s clout or respect, remember that those things don’t automatically come with a job title.
“Organizational scholars look at connections,” said Sonenshein, a management professor at Rice University in Houston.
“Formal structure defines who is at the top, who reports to whom. But they’re also asking, ‘Who do people go to with questions?’ Who are people friends with?’ ”
On the home front, resist the urge to indulge your kids with the next shiny thing. Instead, teach them to be resourceful.
“Make new things from old toys,” he suggested. “Organize a toy swap with friends. Make sure they understand what’s most important is not what they have relative to others, but if they can find happiness with what’s around them.”
“When we’re stretching,” he said, “we’re much more likely to follow goals that bring us happiness.”
Sonenshein grew up in “relatively fortunate circumstances, with a bunch of stretchers.” His parents could afford to take him to the mall, but instead they went discount shopping. While many neighbors sent their children to private schools, he attended public.
He eventually landed in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and was surrounded by “smart people and innovative companies” that tanked because they measured success by the amount of venture capital they raised or the number of employees they hired.
“When resources stopped flowing, they couldn’t adapt.” They chased themselves out of business.
In contrast, he likes to tell the story of a clothing store owner who received a shipment of flimsy dresses that he knew he could never sell. So he stretched for a pair of scissors and turned the dresses into “beach coverups.”
Guess what? He quickly sold out.