No, You Should Not Spend More Time With Your Family

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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.

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.

Work is the same way for two reasons. The enjoyment of work—to the extent that you have any—is likely highest in the first hours of the day when you are fresh, not tired, working on the most important things. By the eighth, 10th, 12th hour of the day, it’s a lot less fun. Of course, work also provides you with income. But the value of this also declines as you add more work. Think about it like this: The first hour of work buys you food, the second buys you housing, and so on, but the 12th hour might be buying you a nicer espresso maker. Everyone likes nice espresso, but the value of the income decreases as you get more of it. (This is called “decreasing marginal utility of consumption.”)

How quickly your enjoyment of any activity declines is pretty personal. You may still love that third hour of stickers, or you may really hate the second hour of work. But, in general, for nearly everyone, there seems to be at least some decrease in enjoyment as you continue an activity. In short, humans are programmed to get bored.

Knowing this, how do you divide your time to make yourself as happy as possible? It’s simple: The last hour of your time doing each activity should contain equal amounts of happiness. If I spend eight hours at work and three with my daughter, then this is ideal if the eighth hour at work has the same amount of happiness as the third hour with her. 

How do I know this is right? If it were not the case—if the third hour with my daughter was much better—then I could make myself happier by taking the last hour at work and spending it with my daughter instead.

The key here is understanding that I may value my daughter much, much more than my job and still want to spend more time at work. Because it may be (as it is for me) that the first hour of time with her gives me incredible joy—far outstripping even a whole week of work happiness—but the enjoyment diminishes fairly quickly. If it decreases much faster than the enjoyment of work, then it’s easy to see why I might want to spend more hours at work.

How can you figure out if you would be happier working less? (Short of quitting your job, of course, which may be a costly way to try this out.) Here’s a simple thought experiment: Imagine that the week contains one more waking hour. It magically appears, and you can do what you want with it. What do you want to do? Thinking about it this way forces you to think on the margin: How much is the next minute or hour of time worth? And that marginal thinking is the right way to make decisions.

If the answer is that you’d much rather spend that hour with your family, you are spending too much time at work. If the answer is that you’d much rather spend that hour at work, you are spending too much time with your kids. If the answer is that some weeks you’d work, some you’d stay with the family, then congratulations: You are as happy as you can be.