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Getting More Done At Work Won’t Make You As Happy As Just Working Less

We’ve been convinced that having a job and being a productive worker will make us feel better about ourselves. It won’t.

Getting More Done At Work Won’t Make You As Happy As Just Working Less
[Top Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

No one argues that having money isn’t part of a happy life. Both research and instinct tell us that people who are poor enough to worry about their next meal or making rent are not operating at maximum happiness capacity.

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What if we could somehow earn an acceptable income without a job? Would you still be happy?

Conventional wisdom has taught us that there’s intrinsic merit to the mere act of working, divorced from the products of our labor (i.e. income). America has historically equated a strong work ethic with moral superiority, an idea that dates to colonial times when life was rougher. Today, our economy certainly benefits when people believe that productive work is an important ingredient to life satisfaction and that “laziness” or leisure leads us to a depressed, empty existence (pity Reagan’s infamous “welfare queen”). But whether we, as individuals, benefit is less clear.

It’s a hard question to answer; whether employment for employment’s sake really makes us happier. People who have jobs tend to make more money and have more security than people who don’t, and disentangling the act of working with the act of making money isn’t an easy proposition. And some people may find a higher purpose in their work; others may not.

A group of researchers recently tried to look at this question using life satisfaction survey data from typical German workers taken between 1984 and 2010. Going beyond previous research, they were able to distinguish between changes in self-reported well-being due to temporary changes in income, such as getting a performance bonus or working overtime, and “persistent” changes in income, like getting a salary raise or finding a better paid job.

The results imply that we undervalue the satisfaction we get from money and we overvalue the satisfaction we get from working. “It seems that the data does not support the claim that working makes you happier per se,” says Christian Bayer, a mathematical economist at the University of Bonn.

Their study, published in American Economic Journal, found that people report being happier when they get a permanent raise in income, whether it’s a large or very small increase (a 1% raise is even worth a 2.5% increase in hours, they estimate). A temporary bump, on the other hand, doesn’t do much to increase life satisfaction, regardless of its size. Therefore, working extra hard for overtime is a recipe for misery. The best “formula” for happiness is getting long-term raises over a career while working the same number of hours. In that sense, being productive at work helps–but only if you think it’ll lead to a raise.

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Understanding this effect also allowed the researchers to tease out the difference in being employed versus being unemployed. They found the employed are indeed more satisfied with their lives, but not because they are working–simply because they are getting an long-term increase in income. Hypothetically, a person on permanent unemployment benefits would need to find a job that pays 20% more than their unemployment check for them to personally benefit from going back to work.

Social scientists have previously found that money is not so important for a happy life, but that mere act of having a job does buy some. This study tells us the opposite.

“Generous welfare payments make the recipient better off even if they increase his/her unemployment duration. The previous literature would have argued otherwise. They would have supported the claim that it is best to get people in employment no matter how meager their incomes,” Bayer explains.

More broadly, Bayer says the results show that “material circumstances matter” more than researchers had realized. Growing income inequality and stagnant wages, both in the U.S. and Europe, are making us less satisfied with our lives. People are working more for less–and they aren’t happy about it. How long can it last?

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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