Monday, September 26, 2011

Relationships Not Productivity?

As posted on

Some weeks ago I received a rather acerbic email from a reader lambasting me for my relentless focus on productivity. Life is not just about productivity, he said. It is about relationships. Have I thought about this? Maybe people don’t want to be working day in and day out in factories or offices. People derive happiness from relationships not money and being poor doesn’t mean being unhappy. Our country will suffer because of people like me who come with western ideas to spoil the fabric of our society. And as I have come to realize, this particular reader’s opinion is a fairly common one.

Last week I was going through the Kerala backwaters in a small boat with my kids and I almost could see his point. Life expectancy in Kerala is 78 compared to the 55-65 range in the rest of the country. Literacy is 100%. The villages we passed were clean and beautiful. What is it you would want to change about this scene? Is there some burning need for ‘progress’ here?

The people in the villages sat in front of their houses watching us go by. As we came back around a few hours later, the same people, still there, smiled and waved to us. I wondered what it would be like to live that life, sitting for hours every day, chatting with your friends and watching boats go by. And here is my answer – for many it would be boring and unsatisfactory because the human mind has the intrinsic property of seeking out novelty. To live in the same paradigm day after day, year after year, leaves little to talk about. Should the fabric of our society be idle minds? Even in these villages in Kerala with good health and fish, fruit and grain within arm’s reach there is urban migration. Few people go the other way.

When I talk about productivity it is not about mindlessly pursuing money but about engaging in creating and producing new value for the greater benefit of society. What is of ‘value’ is certainly debatable but what matters for the individual is if they feel what they are doing has value. There is pride and satisfaction in a valuable job well done – no matter at what level. And relationships are fundamental in this endeavour because we can create more together than each individually. In a productive society relationships don’t have to be less important but simply different in character. There is pleasure and happiness in productive relationships – the coming together of people to create value for society.

In India family relationships have long been designed to maintain wealth within a family and community and to provide a safety net for the many unemployed. However if more people were productively engaged in creating value, then resources would expand and societal relationships would reconfigure naturally. For people like my cook who supports his family, his brother’s family and his parents, I imagine this might be a relief. And his unemployed brother might actually be happier having a job than not. These relationships may actually be more enjoyable and less stressful. For the people who spend their days sitting in the beautiful backwaters of Kerala watching the world go by, they might just find a different kind of pleasure in doing something more. At least they would have more to talk about with their friends.

So while the pursuit of money or material gain for its own sake may not be the path to happiness, being productively engaged and valuable to society might do a better job. And if this is a western idea, so be it. A good idea is a good idea, wherever it’s from.


  1. @And relationships are fundamental in this endeavour because we can create more together than each individually.

    Relationships are important coz you can create more? Do you love your son, so that you can add some "value" to society? I'm sorry, for making it personal, but I hope you get the point.

    And why do want more, when you can do with less??
    And we have seen the result of "more" and "more" in the western societies. Just look at problems caused by "more" and "more" credit, which would force businesses to earn more and more profit, more and more pollution. And then- the need to be sustainable.

    Our villagers have practiced a sustainable way of life, a balanced one, without going through that disaster. Please, try to understand villages as a place where people live. Where real people live.

    They are not points on a graph and their relationships are more than connecting lines on a social network plot. People are not "production units".

    Lastly, India is a land where people believed
    "vasudhaiva kutumbakam", much before anyone thought of "Globalization".

  2. Cant agree with you more Anon. I was reading an article by Shankaracharya which talks about alpitam as a sin - this means that showing off what you have to the have nots is a sin. More productivity could lead to alpitam. The fundamental issue with this blogger appears to be my way or high way. While this is a perspective and there could be other perspectives is something never acknowledged. The dialogue in movie avatar sums it up - they are not interested in our beer or blue jeans ... and "people may genuinely not be interested in material acquisitions and therefore decide to contribute less"

  3. She didn't say relationships exist to create more things. She said relationships enable us to do more than we could do alone.

    Why do you have such a problem with the idea that people want to do more? If you would have been content with the village life Indians have had for millennia, why did you bother learning English and getting internet access? If villagers are so happy with their lives, why are they leaving in droves to live in squalor in the cities?

  4. @ oct 12,
    Why I learnt English? To translate the knowledge to local languages.

    As far as villagers moving out of villages and creating large slums in cities, I would say this-It's just one of hundreds of problems caused by blindly trying to impose materialistic way of life.

    And please, don't get me started on debt and other economic crisis caused by greedy financial institutions and bankers, and coming ecological disaster and climate change, and other stuff that are results of "more".

  5. Let people be is the bottom line.. those who aspire will find a way to achieve. The point here is not to sit on judgement over someone who doesnt aspire and is content. Different people have different needs and just the way the blogger has the need to contribute and focus on productivity which is respected, there could be others who may not have the need.

  6. What about those who have the need but do not have access to resources to be productive? Consider the maid servant who lost Rs 25000 to a unscrupulous chit fund. She is productive but did not have access to information nor resources that would keep her savings safe. Also consider a farmer, in a village about 100 kms away from a city, who has to walk 5 kms to catch a bus to the nearest medical facility. He too is productive without the resources to be productive!