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