Rationalizing Anxiety

February 22, 2006

In the past few months I have felt myself subjected to painful gut-wrenching stress, the likes of which I managed to avoid at crucial career junctures in the past.

As a high-school student applying to colleges, I sidestepped much of the anxiety by being fortunate enough to be granted early admission. Later, when applying to Ph.D. programs in economics, I was indecisive about whether to go to graduate school or work in finance. Thus I was able to take an insouciant Taoist view, letting fate dictate my future.

Unfortunately, this year, the stress of searching for a tenure-track job in my field has proved unavoidable. Having invested a considerable amount of time, effort, and emotion in the study of economics, the prospect of dashed dreams looms large.

The funny thing is that the stress is not always there. It comes and goes depending on which departments I hear from, on how my friends are faring on the market, or even on the time of day or the day of the week. Being a good social scientist, my first instinct was to try to make sense of the stress variation: to analyze it, to rationalize it, and, in so doing, to conquer it.

The stress was worst in the weeks before Christmas. A helpful survey of participants in past economics job searches had shown me that, by early December, candidates should expect -- on average -- 11.71 first-round, 30-minute interviews, one or two of which would lead to a job offer.

At the time, I had only one interview. My prospects eventually got better, mercifully, but not before I experienced the shameful pain of hearing others in my cohort get good news (when I should have been wishing them well), followed by a sense of schadenfreude, or guilty pleasure, when they heard nothing back. On those quiet days when I heard nothing as well, the information void allowed stress to creep in.

Clearly, my happiness was tied to my beliefs about my future job prospects. Each day that passed with no news meant the probability that search committees had already offered interviews to other candidates inched upward. Each day on which a friend heard good news from a particular department confirmed that its search committee has already picked its candidates and that I was not among them. Days on which I heard good news about a job interview provided a short-lived happiness.

A wide body of psychological research is available on the topic of happiness, and its opposite in this context, bone-crushing stress. Psychologists have shown that the elation and depression associated with life-changing experiences tend to ebb away. Perhaps most personally salient was research showing that just a few months after receiving tenure, professors were not as happy as they expected they would be. A person's happiness seems always to revert to a base line -- set by culture, upbringing, or genetic luck -- that is largely unaffected by life's events.

Two economists at the University of Chicago -- Luis Rayo and Gary S. Becker -- have produced a mathematical model of emotion that helped me make sense of this literature. They use a very simple observation: Evolution has led the brain to use emotion to motivate the right choices toward achieving some goal. However, emotion is a very blunt instrument; it has difficulty discerning whether eating that chocolate cake will yield $5.50 worth of happiness or $5.55 worth.

Thus, once goals are achieved, the brain's reward is temporary happiness, with a quick reversion to neutrality so that we may be motivated to work toward the next challenge. If we are far from our goal, the brain preps for action using stress, readying the body to run from approaching predators. Success is rewarded by happiness, but the happiness is ultimately temporary. The emotion-motivation system must be readied to act when the next predator appears on the savanna.

As a corollary to their theory, success by one's peers makes us less happy, because it implies we should be working harder, while its opposite, schadenfreude, is the reward for surviving a hard environment when others have failed.

With that framework, my personal experiences with stress during the job search start to make sense.

Those theories about happiness are a useful addendum to traditional economics, which tends to care only about how much we have, not how happy we are. With the Rayo-Becker model in hand, I can tell myself that the stress I have been experiencing is merely evolution's way of motivating hard work in preparation for the job search.

And since all of my preparations -- the letters, the papers, the studying -- have already been made, the need for motivation is over and the stress I've been feeling is irrational. There is no point in feeling stressed while playing the waiting game. Predictably, this attempt to rationalize away my job-market frustrations has proved of limited effectiveness.

So I turned to Buddha for more help. Remarkably, the Rayo-Becker economic view of happiness is compatible with a mathematical take on Buddhism, where happiness equals possessions divided by desire. We can increase our happiness by increasing what we have, but we could also increase our happiness by decreasing what we want. Using Rayo and Becker's theory, if I change my wants to something more easily attainable, then the brain no longer needs to use stress to motivate. Perhaps a re-evaluation of my desires is in order.

I wonder how much of what academics want is status and prestige. An extant puzzle for many within academe: Why do Ph.D.'s accept such low wages when J.D.'s, M.D.'s, and M.B.A.'s with fewer years of education make so much more money?

Two reasons are typically given: first, that our passion for our scholarly work makes us willing to sacrifice financial rewards. But if all I cared about was a passion for economics, then I could pursue that passion just about anywhere. I wonder how much of what I seek is based on the second major reason: that academics value the status of an institutional affiliation more than the money that goes with it.

But status -- like happiness -- is a reference-dependent game. Wherever you are, there is always someone higher in the pecking order. Chasing happiness via increased status is an elusive proposition.

Talking with people not involved in the academic-hiring process helps to put things in perspective. At least it's helped me to re-evaluate my priorities about what is important in life and adjust my expectations about the future. And that re-evaluation has helped me manipulate my brain's emotional-response system and reduce my stress and anxiety.

In the past two months, I have been invited to interview at a wide range of different departments, and have been busy flying across the country. Recently, I spent a day interviewing for what might have been my dream job, but before the day was out, I knew I would not receive the offer. Understanding the ups and downs of the hiring process did not protect me from the deep emotional abyss that followed. However, it might have hastened the recovery that began just two hours later.

Even though I am used to a certain amount of emotional resiliency, the speed of the change surprised me. I used those two hours to re-evaluate what I wanted out of life and decided I would likely be happier somewhere else.

Over the next few days, my emotional state steadily returned to equilibrium. It is late in the game now and I still don't have a job offer. My future is completely up in the air. But what is certain is that wherever I end up, I know I will be happy, for a time anyway.

B. Ho is a Ph.D. candidate in economics. He is chronicling his search this academic year for a tenure-track job.