Would working less really make us happy?
FFinding the right work-life balance is by no means a new issue in our society. But the tension between the two has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with workers increasingly dwelling on the nature of their work, its meaning and purpose, and how these affect their quality of life.
Studies suggest that people are leaving or considering leaving their employers in record numbers in 2021 – a “big resignation” that seems to have been precipitated by these thoughts. But if we all reconsider where and how work fits into our lives, what should we be aiming for?
It’s easy to believe that if only we didn’t need to work, or if we could work much fewer hours, we would be happier, living a life of hedonic experiences in all their healthy and unhealthy forms. But that doesn’t explain why some retirees choose freelance jobs and some lottery winners go straight back to work.
Finding the perfect work-life balance, if it exists, doesn’t necessarily mean changing when, where and how we work – it’s about why we work. And that means understanding the sources of happiness that may not be so obvious to us, but which have crept into our sight during the pandemic.
Attempts to find a better work-life balance are well deserved. Work is constantly and positively linked to our well-being and is a big part of our identity. Ask yourself who you are, and very soon you will have to describe what you do for the job.
Our jobs can give us a feeling of competence which contributes to well-being. Researchers have shown not only that work leads to validation, but that when these feelings are threatened, we are especially drawn to activities that require effort – often a form of work – because they demonstrate our ability to shape our environment. , confirming our identity as competent persons.
Work even seems to make us happier in circumstances where we prefer to opt for leisure. This was demonstrated by a series of smart experiments in which participants had the option of being inactive (waiting 15 minutes in a room for an experiment to begin) or being busy (walking 15 minutes to another location for participate in an experiment). Very few participants chose to be busy, unless they were forced to take the walk or given a reason (they were told there was chocolate in the other place).
Still, the researchers found that those who spent 15 minutes walking were much happier than those who spent 15 minutes waiting, regardless of whether they had a choice of chocolate or none. In other words, being busy contributes to happiness even when you think you’d rather be inactive. Animals seem to understand this instinctively: in experiments, most prefer to work for food than to receive it for free.
Closely related to the psychological concept of eudaïmonic happiness is the idea that work, or putting effort into tasks, contributes to our general well-being. It’s the kind of happiness we get from functioning optimally and reaching our potential. Research has shown that hard work and effort are at the heart of eudaimonic happiness, explaining that satisfaction and pride you feel in completing a strenuous task.
On the other side of work-life balance is hedonic happiness, which is defined as the presence of positive feelings such as cheerfulness and the relative paucity of negative feelings such as sadness or anger. We know that hedonic happiness offers empirical benefits for mental and physical health, and that recreation is a great way to pursue hedonic happiness.
But even in the field of leisure, our unconscious orientation towards activity lurks in the background. A recent study suggested that there really is such a thing as too much free time – and that our subjective well-being actually starts to decline if we have more than five hours a day. Spending effortless days at the beach doesn’t seem like the key to long-term happiness.
This could explain why some people prefer to put in a lot of effort in their free time. Researchers likened it to compiling an experiential resume, sampling unique but potentially unpleasant or even painful experiences – at extremes, this can be spending a night in an ice hotel or participating in an endurance race in the desert. . People who participate in these forms of “hobbies” typically talk about achieving personal goals, making progress, and accumulating accomplishments – all hallmarks of eudaimonic happiness, not the hedonism we associate with hobbies.
The real balance
This focus fits well with a new concept in the field of wellness studies: that rich and diverse experiential happiness is the third component of a “good life”, in addition to hedonic and eudemonic happiness.
Across nine countries and tens of thousands of participants, researchers recently found that most people (over 50% in each country) would still prefer a happy life characterized by hedonic happiness. But about a quarter prefer a meaningful life embodied in eudaimonic happiness, and a small number of people (about 10-15% in each country) choose to lead rich and diverse experiential lives.
Considering these different approaches to life, perhaps the key to lasting well-being is determining which lifestyle is right for you: hedonic, eudaïmonic, or experiential. Rather than turning work against life, the real balance to be found after the pandemic lies between these three sources of happiness.
Lis Ku is a lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University. This article first appeared on The conversation