Friday, November 6, 2009

Your Work Habits and the Happiness Treadmill

As an entrepreneur (or as anyone who wants to be successful), you have two important decisions to make about your work habits:

  1. How many hours should you devote to work activities?
  2. How much effort should you put in during each of those hours?
(1) will be the subject of a future post. Today we're going to address (2) and introduce some findings from the field of hedonic psychology, the scientific study of what makes experiences and life pleasant or unpleasant.

Many people have two reasonable-sounding suppositions about a trade-off of work habits:
  1. If I engage in my work, for example by putting in full mental effort at the appropriate times to make my tasks succeed, I will increase my expected income.
  2. If I disengage somewhat, for example by cranking some tunes on my headphones while I should to be fully engaged in strategic planning, I will live a happier life: I will increase the number of moments in my life during which I feel happy, and I will have an increased overall life satisfaction.
Number 1 is mostly right, although we do have to address the possibility of mental fatigue (a concept better left for an upcoming post on the optimal number of work hours).

Number 2, however, is quite misguided. Part of the problem is that, to a large degree, we have a genetic 'set point' for happiness, weakly analogous to the homeostasis mechanisms that stabilize our body temperature and weight despite changes in the environment; and part of the problem is that our intuitions about what make us happy are extremely unreliable.

Any rationalist who cares about their own happiness should familiarize themselves with hedonic psychology, but for now, two broad findings are:
  • We are surprisingly bad at intuitively predicting what will make us happy.
  • We intuitively overestimate how much a specific change to our life will affect our short-term happiness  (Focusing Effect) and overestimate even more how much the change will affect our long-term happiness (Impact Bias).
A common example concerns lottery winners and parapelgics: People significantly overestimate how much long-term happiness they will gain from winning the lottery, and overestimate how much long-term happiness they will lose if they become parapalegics.

Again, you should familiarize yourself with the literature, but one minor finding is that having meaningful work is one of the things that can nudge the figures up slightly in terms of your long-term happiness. In contrast, to my knowledge no study has found that being lazy or not caring will increase your overall life satisfaction. (Getting proper sleep does help, but that's a different matter.)

So we see that the tradeoff above is illusory: deciding to become engaged in your work not only improves your career outcomes, but if anything will make you happier in the long run. How to consistently follow through on this decision will be the subject of tomorrow's post.

More reading on hedonic psychology:



This sounds mostly correct, but what about the stress associated with being truly comitted to your work. Surely having a certain level of disengagement can limit the amount of stress, which would otherwise lead to unhappiness.

Rolf Nelson

@Pierre-Louis overall the studies show that, for the average person, finding your work meaningful increases your level of happiness in the long-term, even if there is some increased stress associated with it. Unless you have reason to think you're an outlier in terms of getting distressed easily, you should engage. Presumably it would be better to be an outlier in the opposite direction, and find a way to be engaged without being distressed.


Also, I suspect people don't disengage from work to avoid stress. They may claim to, but most likely there is a deeper reason that they are rebelling against work. Similarly, someone who perennially gets extremely stressed out by work probably has deeper issues about why they are over-engaged.

The healthy medium is to work hard at the things within your power, but not to take the slings and arrows too personally. Yes, stress inevitably comes, as it does in all areas of life (for all creatures), but detaching completely is a pathological defense mechanism that only makes sense if your psyche is completely destroyed.