Engagement: A Source of Value, Quality of Life, or Both?

Science and Practice at a Crossroads

When Romy was a child, her daily schedule was almost as busy as that of many adults. Just like all the other children, she woke up early to go to school, came home for lunch, and took a little break before doing her homework. Afterwards, however, she would not go and play with her friends or watch TV: Romy usually had plans for the rest of the day, ranging from weekly ballet classes and music lessons to tennis. Later, in high school, she worked in a bookshop one afternoon per week and on Saturdays. During the winter, Sundays were reserved for the ski club, which meant getting up at five a.m. to catch the coach that took the whole group to a ski resort nearby. Oftentimes, dance performances or tennis games were scheduled for the weekend, too, and still Romy found time for her friends, for school, and other activities like reading.

How is that possible? And moreover, isn't it irresponsible of parents to overwhelm their children with scheduled activities while they are young, given that adulthood will come sooner than one will realize anyway? Looking back now, fifteen years later, Romy explains: "The happiest times in my life were those when I was actually most busy, but with different things that fulfilled me in a complementary way. There were also times when I was not engaged in so many things, basically just went to school, hung out with friends, and did some kind of sports once or twice a week. I got quite bored and grumpy, and ended up spending way too much time watching TV…" Romy seems like a fairly engaged person, but does that mean that the mere number of different tasks one engages in at a given stage of life can predict how happy one is?


Let me describe another example of an engaged person, the enthusiastic workaholic. The person might love her job even though it takes up most of her time, diminishing opportunities for socializing, being with her partner or family, for holidays, or merely reading a book. There is not much diversity involved in the kinds of tasks this person engages in, at least not beyond what the job itself can afford, but the person might still be very happy. This might be due to a mechanism involving strength of engagement: The more absorbed, involved, occupied and interested the workaholic is in her job, the more valuable it will be for her, even if he encounters obstacles that sometimes make everyday business a real pain (see Higgins, 2006). Yet, there is another kind of workaholic, the so-called non-enthusiastic type. This person also feels heavily compelled to work at his or her job, but does not necessarily like it (Bonebright, Clay, & Ankenmann, 2000). By the same principle that makes the enthusiastic workaholic adore her job, the non-enthusiastic workaholic may become increasingly repelled by it the more absorbed and occupied she becomes. This is because strength of engagement does not simply add to the positive value of things, but intensifies our subjective evaluation of any target object, be it positive or negative. Hence, if a person evaluates her job rather negatively in the first place, she will hate it even more the more she engages in it.

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