Bestselling author Tyler Cowen on ‘Is work fun?’

Working is next to last in terms of producing a positive mood, and that is sad news. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like work; it only means we like other things better.

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The following excerpt is reprinted from “BIG BUSINESS: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero” by Tyler Cowen. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Is work fun?

Yes, running a business is rewarding for the CEO, but what about the workers? Worker exploitation is one of the oldest charges levied at capitalism, and it persists through the current day. For instance, in a recent Times Literary Supplement review of books about work, Joe Moran summed it up bluntly: “These books are about the misery.” David Graeber, in his recent highly popular book, says it all in the title: Bullsh-t Jobs: A Theory. Jeffrey Pfeffer, from the Stanford School of Business, calls his latest book Dying for a Paycheck, even though there is established evidence that unemployment is worse for your health than working.

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I’d like to suggest that productive work is one of the most fulfilling sides of our lives. For the most part, it makes us happier, better adjusted, and better connected to the social world. It gives balance to our home lives. It helps us realize who we are as human beings. This is one of the subtler ways in which capitalism is a creator—namely, a creator of our better selves.

I’ll get back to those points, but in the meantime I do need to put some bad news on the table. It’s called “work”; it’s also called “labor.” Those are not in every way positive words. If you said to a friend (or, rather, an ex-friend), “Being with you is work,” it would not be an entirely positive comment. Or it might be said that you labor under a delusion, but no one would say that you labor under a happy or ecstatic feeling.

To oversimplify by only a bit, they have to pay you to do it. And that suggests work is not in every way fun. Furthermore, for most people work is the main way that they interact with business on a daily basis, which means that business is associated with the activities that take some of the fun out of our lives. Bits of fun are drained on a very regular basis, often five days a week, but the paychecks arrive less frequently in most cases and often by the less visible means of direct deposit. So the stresses and tedium of the work are for many people more vivid than the wages they earn. And that in sum is one reason business is not entirely popular with the American public—or, indeed, with the public elsewhere in the world. Business is like the parent who tells you that you can’t have everything you want all the time.

Some recent studies and surveys illustrate the potential burden of work. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and economist Alan Krueger measure our “daily affective experiences” by having people wear beepers that go off at irregular intervals, at which time the people record what they are doing and their feelings. You can think of this as a technique for measuring moods. But the researchers ask about more than just the subjects’ feelings at a given point in time; they also ask how happy people are with various aspects of their lives. The study thus considers both momentary pleasure and the overall feeling of satisfaction from a life well spent, because happiness isn’t just a single thing with a unidimensional scale. For this study, the researchers recruited 909 employed women with an average age of thirty-eight and an average household income of $54,700.

And what did the researchers find? The highest-rated activities, from most favored to less favored, were intimate relations, socializing, relaxing, and prayer/worship/meditation. In the middle of the list were watching TV, preparing food, and talking on the phone, among other mundane activities. The bottom five were childcare, computer/email/ internet, housework, working, and—dead last—commuting.

So working is next to last in terms of producing a positive mood, and that is sad news. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like work; it only means we like other things better. And in fact, when you drill down, the ratio of people who have positive feelings about work to those who have negative feelings is just over 3.5 to 1. (That’s not as good as the
5.10 to 0.36 positive-to-negative ratio for intimate relations, but sex always was going to beat out work anyway.)

Consider also that the same data set shows people spending 6.9 hours a day working, whereas prayer/worship/meditation is done only about 24 minutes a day. Presumably that is because you are paid to work but not paid to pray. If people prayed 6.9 hours a day, most of them probably would find it less intrinsically rewarding, and arguably it would have a much lower score. (If you are wondering, intimate relations averages 12 minutes a day, and that too might be less popular if it were at 6.9 hours a day.) In that regard, work doesn’t do nearly as badly as those numbers at first seem to indicate. People are doing so much of it precisely because it has a high net reward, even if not all of that reward is direct fun in the moment. Furthermore, work is often an important pathway toward both intimate relations and socializing, the two highest-rated activities on the list; that induces many people to work more than would otherwise be the case.

Do note an important caveat: namely, that the women in this study were polled only on workdays. Had they been polled on weekends, perhaps work would seem a bit more welcome and a little less burdensome. How would children have done as a source of pleasure if the queries had been posed on the weekends too? We just don’t know.

It is interesting to see what the authors find about work as a source of lifetime satisfaction compared with immediate mood. Some of what we do, such as caring for our children, seems more important for lifetime satisfaction than for fun in the moment, as having kids can be pretty stressful. When it comes to work, the same is true: a good job boosts overall feelings of satisfaction more than it helps our immediate mood. On this measure, the benefits of work are again higher than they may look at first.

I am not trying to whitewash the burdens of the workday and the workplace. Nonetheless, a lot of the other evidence points us toward the more positive side of work. Work provides us with a lot of what we value in life, including affirmation of our social worth, a structure for problem solving combined with rewards, and an important source of social interactions with (sometimes) sympathetic or like-minded others. Many jobs are creative: 82 percent of all workers report that their jobs consist mainly of “solving unforeseen problems on their own.”Plus there is always the paycheck. It’s not just the food and rent; the money from work often gives us the means to make, keep, and stay in touch with some of those friends we value so much. In this regard, the value of work and the value of friends are by no means so separate. Of course, these benefits from work are no accident; in large part they are created by employers to try to lure more talented workers. That is exactly what competition requires. Even if the bosses do not explicitly plan all of the social benefits of work, they allow them to persist and grow, for the purposes of worker morale, recruitment, and retention.

Another way to think about the non-pay-related benefits of having a job is to consider the well-known and indeed sky-high personal costs of unemployment. Not having a job when you want to be working damages happiness and health well beyond what the lost income alone would account for. For instance, the unemployed are more likely to have mental health problems, are more likely to commit suicide, and are significantly less happy. Sometimes there is a causality problem behind any inference—for instance, do people kill themselves because they are unemployed, or are they unemployed because possible suicidal tendencies make them less well suited to do well in a job interview? Still, as best we can tell, unemployment makes a lot of individual lives much, much worse. In the well-known study by economists Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, involuntary unemployment is worse for individual happiness than divorce or separation. Often it is more valuable to watch what people do rather than what they say or how they report their momentary moods.

The aggregate data on work hours are striking, and they show that Americans have fairly positive attitudes toward work. For instance, if we consider weekly work hours per American, that number rose from 22.34 in 1950 to 23.94 in 2000, hardly a sign of work falling out of fashion. Over this period, too, large numbers of women came into the workforce, many because they wanted to work and earn their own incomes. The reality is that preferences for work haven’t declined nearly as much as commentators had been predicting earlier in the twentieth century. Earning and spending money is fun, and many jobs are more rewarding, more social, and safer than they used to be. Even with much higher living standards now than in the immediate postwar era, Americans still basically want to stay on the job.

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