That is why I found a recently published research study in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science somewhat intriguing. It is about why do we work so hard if our “needs” are met. The authors asked -- if technological gains allow us to produce more with less, why are we still working so many hours? They acknowledge John Maynard Keynes's prediction 50 years ago that by 2030 we will need to work only 15 hours a week, the rest will be leisure. But in the United States the work week is largely unchanged for over 70 years.
Because there are so many factors affected how hard we work, the researchers conducted laboratory experiments. In the first, participants earned chocolates at different rates by enduring unpleasant noise. They found people who could earn chocolate with less work (high earning rate) greatly overearned, earning twice as many chocolates as they would eat. In another experiment participants earned jokes but then they had to read all them in the second part of the experiment. Again those with a high earning rate overearned even though they had to read all the jokes. In a third experiment some people were given a limit on how much chocolate they could earn. Others were not. Those not given a limit overearned. Those with a limit did not, although they could have listened to more noise without reward. On a happiness scale, those with the limit reported being happier than those who overearned.
The authors suggested that to earn and accumulate is part of our DNA, for centuries it has been fundamental to our survival. Today in situations where earning and accumulating more is not essential, we do it anyway. So what? As the authors noted, a common phrase is “It never hurts to earn more.” But they suggested this may not be true. We fail to devote time and energy to other activities, in some cases, more pleasurable activities, or perhaps more important activities.
My take-away: Work meets many needs besides economic ones. However as a society it is interesting that we seem to have chosen more goods and services over more leisure time. Did we chose it or is that just the way it has evolved? Some people try to downsize their lives, to simplify. Perhaps most important is that we be aware of the choices that we make with our time. In the past week several older men have mentioned to me how they wish they had been there to watch their children grow up, how they worked hard to provide but how much they missed. I think the key is to understand our choices.
Hsee, C. K., Zhang, J. , Cai, C. F., & Zhang, S. (2013). Overearning. Psychological Science, 24 (6), 852-859.
Image of chocolates adapted from image by User:Pfctdayelise from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Melting_chocolate_-_step_3.JPG
Used with permission: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en