Out west’, as my family often refers to any place west of the Ontario-Manitoba border, our farmers on the Prairies leave the land unseeded after plowing for a period of time to allow for natural recovery–they call this Summer Fallow. Summer holiday “Up North”, for many of us, is a time of reflection in addition to recovery. Sitting “on the dock of the bay”,1 so to speak, I find myself reviewing the year, balancing the accomplishments and events with plans for the year to come. The result of such analysis is a judgment about how happy I was during the past year and how hard did I have to work to earn the privilege of rest and leisure – in essence a soul searching of sorts. This year was no different.
Running a small business (a dental practice) in addition and equally to being an academic, the assessment of my practice invariably deals with its economic parameters. All this is done in the lap of nature, at the Lake, while I recover and recharge my batteries. Reading books and varied publications make up a major part of this self prescribed ‘therapy’. An article reviewing a series of lectures by professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics2 did strike me as lightening during a quick summer storm: students at Harvard University were asked whether they would prefer (a) $50,000 a year while others got half of that or (b) $100,00 a year while others got twice as much. The majority chose (a) suggesting that most of the respondents were happy as long as they were better off than their peers. The same group of students was also asked to choose between (c) two weeks’ holiday, while others have only one week and (d) four weeks’ holiday while others have eight. This time around the clear majority preferred (d), meaning that people’s rivalry over income does not extend over their concept of leisure. On one hand, our envious nature measures financial success relative to others but when it comes to leisure, we can deal with it in absolute parameters. Although I sensed something unsettling in these lines while reading them, the real meaning of this survey did not hit me until I had a leisure swim or two in the pristine Lake. Is it possible, I wondered climbing up on the dock, that we are more concerned about our income relative to others rather than whether we can afford daily food, shelter, look after our children and our elders? Are we prepared to work harder just to keep up (with the Joneses)? Could it be that the pleasure of our pay rise vanishes when we learn that a colleague has been given more? Are we caught in a spiral of working more and harder in order to earn and spend more to the detriment of less leisure time, which we still desire irrespective of how much holiday time our peers have?
I have answered my imaginary poll, similar to the one described above. I suggest that you do it too. If you too, my colleague and peer, have answered it in the same manner as I did then, we all have some adjustments to make, summer fallow or not.
1.Otis Redding, The Dock Of The Bay–Volt 419 2/1968
2.”Happiness–Has Social Science a Clue?” Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures 2003, Center for Economic Performance, London School of Economics,