Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Productivity of the Waterfront and Two Hearted Ales

I'll let the secret out now: I spend my happy hours at the Waterfront Bar and Grill with colleagues in the social science department.  Regularly.  We like the atmosphere and the food.  Sitting outside in the summer is nice, even with the algal bloom off the lake.  And they always have Bell's Two Hearted Ale (a Michigan IPA) on tap.  However, what is most important to us is we talk about work.  And we really love doing so.  We actually get a ton of program planning done and classroom exercises created.  To me, this illustrates the importance of our social relationships to our jobs.

We may seem to be slacking off, but in reality we are at least twice as productive by going to the Waterfront and having a couple beers.  Our organization actually functions more efficiently by our seemingly inefficient use of time.  Maybe this is why a recent study shows that moderate drinking makes you much smarter?

Ray Oldenburg, Robert Putnam, and others argue that this is actually really important to democracy, as well as our own happiness.  Putnam argues that social capital, the idea that we gain value to our lives that is useful for future exchanges, from just socializing with others.  Beyond that, we tend to talk about consequential things, at least at some point, from socializing with others.  This makes us more knowledgeable about political issues, but it also makes us more likely to push for compromise, which is integral to a functional democracy.  His research shows that this is decreasing in the U.S.  A lot.  We don't even spend our leisure time with others as much (thus the title of his book, "Bowling Alone").  Oldenburg says that with suburbanization and other socio-economic processes in American society we are losing a lot of our "Great Good Places".  These are places besides our home and work where we socialize with others (like the Waterfront).  Tocqueville made the observation that such socialization and Great Good Places were what makes American democracy so great.  He made that observation in the 1830s.  Oldenburg and Putnam note things are different now.

I think we can even use the Two Hearted Ale as a metaphor here.  The title of the beer comes from a short story by Ernest Hemmingway titled "Big Two Hearted River" (there is a great painting of some trout on the bottle).  In the short story the main character goes out into the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan on his own to get in touch with nature.  He fishes.  However, the real story is about the character's reflection on his own social relationships.  He replays his past interactions with others in his head the whole time.  This seems to bring him resolution on some issues that were plaguing him and drove him into the wilderness in the first place.  Hemmingway meant to illustrate the regenerative powers of nature.  The moral of the story is, in my mind, that even when we are alone we depend on social capital to make sense of our world and answer important questions for our lives.  We just end up socializing in our own heads.

The lesson for us?  Our democracy will thrive, we will be more productive, and we will gain happiness from these Great Good Places.  Don't blow off happy hour.  If you don't drink, it really doesn't matter.  [But Two Hearted Ales are really awesome.]  The whole existence of this blog came out of our interactions at the Waterfront.  And even some really good ideas, too.  Beyond that, our time at the Waterfront really helps me love my job, just not in the ways you might initially think.

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