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Maybe Today or Maybe Later

Joe Phillips1 was waiting for the day to end.If you had walked into the paint shop in Philadelphia where he worked, and you asked for a gallon of paint in a particular shade, he would ask you to pick it from a chart, and he would prepare it for you.It was always the same.He would put a dash of pigment into the can, and put the can into a machine that looked a bit like a microwave, and the machine would shake it vigorously.This made the color of the paint even.Then he would take your money and say Thank you, sir. Then he’d wait for the next customer, and do the same thing.Then he would wait for the next customer, and do the same thing.Say Thank you, sir.Wait.Say Thank you, sir.Wait.Nobody ever noticed whether Joe did it well or badly.The only thing his boss ever commented on was if he was late, and then he’d get bawled out.You’re going to do it this way.And you’re going to show up at this time.And as long as you do that, you’re fine. But he found himself thinking, as he put it to me, Where’s the ability to change?Where’s the ability to grow?Where’s the ability to really make an impact on this company that I’m working for?Because anyone can just show up on time, do what they tell you to do.Joe felt like his human thoughts and insights and feelings were almost a defect.But whenever he told me about how his work made him feel, as we ate dinner in a Chinese restaurant, Joe would chastise himself soon afterward.There’s people out there who would die for this job, and I understand that.He felt guilty for feeling this way.But then the feelings kept coming back.And he shook more paint.And he shook more paint.And he shook more paint.So the monotony is lying in that fact that you constantly feel like you’re doing things you don’t want to do, he told me.Although you couldn’t ever put your finger on what that void really was.He would leave home at seven in the morning, work all through the day, and get home at seven at night.There’s got to be something better than this. He started to feel, he said, that there was no hope.I think he felt embarrassed to say it.You have to know that your voice counts.You have to know that if you have a good idea, you can speak up, and change something. He had never had a job like that, and he feared he never would.Joe would have five hours to himself before he had to sleep and then shake paint again.He wanted to just collapse in front of the television, or to be alone.On weekends, all he wanted to do was drink a lot and watch a game.We arranged to meet and walked through the streets of Philadelphia before we ate.There he told me a story.After years of shaking paint, Joe went one night to a casino with one of his friends, and he was offered a little blue pill by one of them.Joe took it and felt pleasantly numbed.When he took it, he felt the fading of those feelings that had been flooding his head.Before long, I made sure I had them before I went to work, made sure I had enough with me at work to get through work, rationing them out, he says.And he shook more paint.And he shook more paint.I wondered if this was because the Oxy made him as blank and empty as the job itself.It seemed to dissolve the conflict between his desire to make a difference and the reality of his life.When I started talking to Joe, he thought at first he was telling me a story about addiction.He had been told by the people he went to for help kicking the Oxy that he was born an addict, and that’s the story he told me at first.But when we talked about it some more, he said he’d had periods of pretty heavy drinking, weed smoking, and the odd line of cocaine as a college student, and he’d never felt any urge to use them more than at occasional parties.And when he did kick the Oxy, after a few rough months, his sense that his life was unbearable came back.All the thoughts he had been trying to get away from recurred as he shook the paint again and again.He knew people need paint, he told me.When you wake up in the morning, you look forward to your day.They studied millions of workers across 142 countries.Nearly twice as many people hate their jobs as love their jobs.A recent survey has confirmed that nine to five is indeed a relic of the past.I began to wonder, after my meal with Joe, if all this might be playing a role in the rise of depression and anxiety.It sounds like a normal human reaction to working at a job like Joe’s for your whole life.6 So I started to search for scientific evidence about how this makes people feel, to see if there was a link to depression and anxiety.One day in the late 1960s,7 a little Greek woman shuffled into a small outpatient clinic in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.It was part of a hospital in one of the poorest parts of the city, looking after mostly immigrants from Greece.She explained to the doctor on duty that she was crying all the time.I feel life is not worth living, she explained.When were you last completely well? the older man asked.My husband is drinking again and beating me.My son is back in prison.My teenage daughter is pregnant.And I cry most days.Difficulty sleeping.Michael was seeing a lot of patients like her coming into the ward asking for help.Immigrants to Australia were subjected to a lot of racism, and that first generation in particular had tough, degrading lives.To Michael, as a young trainee doctor, that seemed like a weird way to respond.He tried to discuss this with the other doctors, explaining that he believed that with a woman like this patient, we should be paying attention to the causes of her depression. The doctors were incredulous.They told him he was talking rubbish.It’s not possible for psychological distress to cause physical illnesses, they explained.This was the belief of most medical practitioners across the world at that time.He had no evidence, and it didn’t seem like anyone was researching this.One of the doctors gently suggested to him that if that’s what he cared about, he should consider going into research rather than practical psychiatry.These were the last days when Englishmen went to work in bowler hats, although they passed young women in miniskirts on the streets, as two eras awkwardly evaded each other’s gaze.He arrived, in the middle of a freezing winter, in a country that seemed to be falling apart.The electricity had recently been shut off for four days a week in a protracted strike.Yet at the heart of this fracturing British society, there was a slick, purring machine.It consists of a vast stream of bureaucrats administering every aspect of the British state, and it is organized as tightly as an army.How does your work affect your health?You can’t really investigate this by comparing very different jobs.Everybody does a desk job.But there are real differences in status, and in how much freedom you get at work.Michael wanted to study whether those differences affect your health.At this time, most people thought they already knew the answer, and so this study was pointless.Who’s more likely to have a heart attack?Who’s more likely to be overwhelmed?Who’s more likely to become depressed?He has a more stressful job.He has to take really tough decisions, with big consequences.Michael and the team he belonged to began the work of interviewing civil servants to gather data about their physical and mental health.It would take them years, and would be broken into two major studies.The civil servants would come in and Michael would talk with each of them for an hour, one on one, about what their jobs involved.The team worked through eighteen thousand civil servants in this way.Michael noticed right away a difference between the different rungs on this social ladder.After years of intensive interviewing, Michael and the team added up the results.It turned out the people at the top of the civil service were four times less likely9 to have a heart attack than the people at the bottom of the Whitehall ladder.The truth was the opposite of what everyone had expected.But then there was a finding that was weirder still.If you plotted it on a graph, as your position in the civil service rose, your chances of developing depression fell, step by step.There was a very close relationship between becoming depressed and where you stood in the hierarchy.This is what social scientists call a gradient. This is really astonishing, Michael wrote.But what could it be?As you rise up the civil service, what actually changes in your work that could explain this shift?They had one early hypothesis, based on everything they’d seen.Could it be, they wondered, that top civil servants have more control over their work than lower civil servants, and that’s why they’re less depressed?Think about your own life, Michael said to me, when we met in his office in central London.Just examine your own feelings.They returned to conduct more interviews and gather more detailed data.