No, You Should Not Spend More Time With Your Family

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 8 2013 5:33 AM

Why You Shouldn’t Work Less

Even if you prefer spending time with your family.

Young businesswoman eating lunch at desk.
Does spending less time at work and more time with your family make you happier?

Photo by Siri Stafford/Digital Vision/Thinkstock.

Would I be happier if I spent less time at work?

Emily Oster Emily Oster

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School. Her book is Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.

Surely we have all asked ourselves this at one time or another. Perhaps during a fit of pique about a ridiculous deadline or the idiot who works in the next cubicle over. But even when things are going well, you might still wonder: Would I be happier if I worked less? After all, there are other things in life one might want to do during the daytime hours—hang out with the children, climb Mt. Everest, sit in a café and read a book—all of which seem, in theory, more pleasurable than racking up more hours at the office.

Before my daughter arrived it hardly ever occurred to me to work less, but since she came along, I’ve given it more thought. I’m pretty happy now, but could I be happier with fewer hours at work? After all, I really enjoy playing with dinosaur stickers and reading Knuffle Bunny.

Advertisement

If you asked me which gives me more joy, my work or my family, there is no question that it’s my family.  Hands down. If I had to give one up, it wouldn’t even be a contest. And, yet, in a typical workday I spend at least eight hours at my job, sometimes more, and only about three with my family. And, ultimately, I think that’s the time split that makes me happiest.

How can this make sense? Isn’t it obvious that the activity that gives you the most happiness should be the one you do the most? It turns out that happiness doesn’t work that simply, and the answer lies in a principle that economists call “diminishing marginal utility.” 

When I teach this, it’s usually in the context of consuming things—say, oranges. The first orange you really enjoy, the second is slightly less good, the third you are pretty bored, and by the 10th you are quite sick. This works for basically any good you consume: The more of something you already have, the less you want yet another of that same thing. It explains why, for example, you’d probably rather have half oranges and half bananas, rather than all of one or the other.

The same logic works with time.

Each hour of your day—sleeping, eating, working, showering, playing with those dinosaur stickers—delivers some amount of happiness. And usually the second hour of the same activity makes you less happy than the first one. The first hour of dinosaur stickers, amazing. The second hour, OK. The third hour? Even the best parent may wonder if it’s, perhaps, time for a glass of wine. In the language of economics, the marginal utility of time with your kids—the happiness you get from the last hour you spend with them—is declining as you spend more hours.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.