Monday, June 14, 2010

Pollsters miss the point on the economy (and everything else)

This past weekend our household was contacted by Gallup for a poll they were conducting on the nation's sense of health and well being. At first, it was exciting. I'd never talked to a pollster before, and I happen to know that it's a small handful of Americans who are chosen to participate.

The young woman on the phone asked me a lot of questions. They were all about me and how I was feeling. Who wouldn't want that kind of call on a Sunday afternoon? It was like getting a free therapy session. The first question had an almost hypnotic effect on me.

"Imagine that your life is a stairway," she said, her tone low and melodious. "At the very top step is the best life you could be having, that's a 10. The bottom step is your worst life, a one. What step are you on?"

I didn't want to seem cocky, so I said "nine." I could see myself standing there, on the ninth step. One foot was already lifting and getting ready for the top of the stairs. As if reading my mind, the pollster asked me which step I saw myself headed towards.

"Ten!" I said, feeling the elation spread through me.

After that, things started to take a turn for the worse. It was like going back to elementary school. I was being quizzed. There were all sorts of questions designed to see if I felt squeezed financially. Then there were the rather intrusive health questions. How many days in the past week had I eaten five or more servings of fruits and vegetables? Had I exercised? How often? Was it for 30 minutes or longer?

I tried to explain that I hadn't expected to receive such a call, and so I had paid no attention to these details. She hid any disappointment she might have had. She asked a question that I could tell was considered a key indicator according to nice people at Gallup.

"Do you have enough time to get the things done that you need to do?"

A long pause ensued. This was, for me, an unanswerable question. If I said "yes," then that meant I  had bought into the presupposition that somehow time was an external factor over which I had no control. If I said "no," then that implied the same thing--only now I was admitting that time had taken such a toll on me that I was failing to keep up with its demands.

Either way, I was trapped. I would be accepting the belief--widely held in this culture, of course--that time is our enemy. It takes away our ability to get things done. How does it do this? Why, it runs out, of course! Like the hourglass in The Wizard of Oz, it drops, one blood red grain of sand at a time, until we have none left. We couldn't do those things that we wanted to do, because time took them away from us. Sneaky bugger.

But of course, this is completely wrong. It's a subjective belief, not an external reality. In fact, the more we believe that time is our problem, the more of a problem it becomes. As Professor Philip Zimbardo explains in this video, people in different cultures experience time in all kinds of ways. In the U.S., we are more "time crunched" than ever. His research found that Americans were admitting that they sacrificed friends, family and sleep in order to get more things done.

Here's the mindblowing part. They then asked people, "suppose you had an eight day week? What would you do with that extra day?" The answer? They would spend that time achieving more. Working harder. Not spending time with friends and family. Not even sleeping more.

There's yet another unexamined assumption buried in that pollster's innocent sounding question. It is the idea that there are things that I "need" to do.  Reasonable enough, on the surface. I'm a functioning member of society. I need to work, earn a living, take care of my home, take care of my family, and so on. But when you take a step back from it, there's a strong implication there that life is essentially made up of activities we just have to do. We're like walking lists, endlessly checking things off of ourselves and then adding more as we go.

Just as with the idea of time, this implies a victim mentality. I am robbed of choice. I don't choose to do things. I just do them, because I must. In fact, the question wouldn't work if they allowed for the presupposition that our lives are our own.

Imagine if she had asked: "do you have the time to do the things you choose to do?"

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? If I choose to do things, then of course I'll make time to do them. Otherwise, I wouldn't be choosing them in the first place. Here's a radical thought. What if we chose to do everything we did? What if all these things we say we "need" to do were just stuff we convinced ourselves we had to do? As Deepak Chopra once noted--the goal of our lives should be to do less and achieve more. Ultimately, the goal is to do nothing and achieve everything.

I'm not saying that Gallup is biased. Bias implies a certain angle on a topic. This runs far deeper than that. It reflects a widely held set of beliefs--a sort of complete wrapper around our culture--that separates us from our own lives, turning us into automatons who do nothing but run around doing, buying and running around some more (this time to achieve our proscribed 30-minutes, three times a week exercise). It's the ultimate victim mentality--about as far from the original American ideal of independence as you can get!

This very headset is actually what got us into the economic mess we're in now. If you look deeply enough, what really caused the recent downturn was the pressure to ensure that the economy continually grew at all costs. Every company had (and still has) to show "growth." Not depth. Not that it served some larger purpose. Just that it got bigger. And so the engines that run the economy had to keep figuring out ways to keep inflating this balloon. The result was that eventually, there was nowhere left to go. The balloon could not get larger. Instead, it popped. And so, Gallup is measuring the little scattered pieces that fell to the ground, never noticing that the balloon isn't us. It isn't even necessary. We'll all be fine without it. We might even be better.

Oh, and by the way, I did finally answer the question. I just couldn't bear to disappoint the lady from Gallup. I said "yes."

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