The Fine Art of Complaining Documented in the NYT

I never cease to be amazed at the things that people complain about. Back on December 19, the New York Times wrote an article detailing the hardships that many employees of financial institutions were undergoing because they weren’t going to receive a year end bonus.

You no doubt recall that the current economic downturn was, at least in part, caused by the excessive risks taken by a number of financial institutions. Many believe that year end bonuses encouraged those risks. In a modest attempt to avoid that problem in the future, many of these institutions went to a “zero bonus” policy for many of their employees.

But lest you feel sorry for these people, you should be comforted by the fact that as part of the “no bonus” policy, these same firms adjusted their employees’ salary so that there would be no reduction in total compensation. For example at one firm a managing director’s salary increased from $300,000 to $500,000. Let’s just say this has been a difficult transition.

Dealing with the Zeros can be complicated. “It’s a real headache,” said another senior banker, who asked not to be identified because the topic is so volatile at his company. There has been so much grousing that in some cases, he said, “we’ll throw $20,000 or $25,000 at each of the Zeros so they’re not discouraged.”

“No matter what we pay people, it is never enough and they always find something to complain about,” this banker said.

Another New York Times story told the saga of the Winklevoss twins and their feud with Facebook. If you want all the details, you can read the story. To understand my point in this post all you need to know is that the twins were offered a settlement of $20 million in cash and $45 million in Facebook shares. But after agreeing to the deal, they are now trying to reverse the decision so that they can get more money all the while insisting to Leslie Stahl on 60 minutes that it’s not about the money! Someone stop the insanity. I’m looking for the one man or woman who will just stand up and say that it’s all about the money.

My last Times reference is to an editorial by David Brooks from last year in which he discusses new research on what leads to happiness. Here’s a couple of paragraphs to give you the flavor…

Over the past few decades, teams of researchers have been studying happiness. Their work, which seemed flimsy at first, has developed an impressive rigor, and one of the key findings is that, just as the old sages predicted, worldly success has shallow roots while interpersonal bonds permeate through and through.

On a personal scale, winning the lottery doesn’t seem to produce lasting gains in well-being. People aren’t happiest during the years when they are winning the most promotions. Instead, people are happy in their 20’s, dip in middle age and then, on average, hit peak happiness just after retirement at age 65.

People get slightly happier as they climb the income scale, but this depends on how they experience growth. Does wealth inflame unrealistic expectations? Does it destabilize settled relationships? Or does it flow from a virtuous cycle in which an interesting job produces hard work that in turn leads to more interesting opportunities?

Let me draw out a couple rather obvious conclusions based on these three articles:
1. No matter what we have, it isn’t enough to satisfy us. Whether it is the financial managers who are going to have to eke by on $500K this year or the Winklevoss twins who snub their noses at $65 million, people find a lot to complain about. The problem is that I’m no different. No, I don’t have millions of dollars, but I have been blessed beyond measure. And I still complain. God forgive me.

2. There is no amount of financial or material blessing that will make a person happy. What really matters is relationships. I’d say that a person who has a strong relationship with God along with good friends is in a pretty good spot and has a lot to be thankful for. And yet what most of us think will make us happier is something totally different.

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