Agile and happy?

Tal Ben-Shahar writes the following in “Happier”, his introductory book into the field of positive psychology: “The proper role of goals is to liberate us, so we can focus on the here and now.” In order to help us have a fulfilling life, our activities should both be meaningful and pleasurable. In this sense, meaning means to have a long term goal, pleasurable means to have a short term goal.

When I was involved in sequential, waterfall-like projects, people always lost sight of the short term goal. Are sequential projects at odds with human happiness?

Positive psychology is a surprising field. Mostly in that it took so long before anyone thought of it. The basic premise is to use scientific and statistic methods to study what makes people happy. Much of the results are exactly what we would expect from pithy sayings and folk wisdom. Some results are very unexpected.

In his fascinating talk on happiness, Dan Gilbert stresses one of these surprising results: Impact bias. Impact bias “is the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of future feeling states.” [wikipedia] In other words, someone who wins the lottery is no happier a year later than someone who ended up in a wheelchair after an accident.

Tal Ben-Shahar also stresses the futility of the rat racer mentality. When we sacrifice our current interests because of a large, long term goal, we will ultimately find that fulfilling this goal will feel unsatisfying. When we sacrifice delivering functionality now and instead work overtime to meet some huge looming deadline years down the road, we will probably feel dissatisfied with our work.

As in all things, the main goal is to restrain our own ambition. To quote Dan Gilbert again:

Yes, some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard or too fast, because we’ve overrated the difference between these futures, we are at risk. When our ambitions are bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambitions are unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value.

To me, waterfall will always be the cult of the unbounded ambitions.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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