Happy for the Work

We often hear that Americans are workaholics, that they refuse to enjoy all the money that they make, that they “live to work”, not “work to live”. A recent article by AEI’s Arthur Brooks examines this phenomenon, coming to the conclusion that despite this disparity in lifestyle, Americans are happier than Europeans. Some highlights:

“The average U.S. worker takes 16 days of vacation each year, less than half that typically taken by the Germans (35 days), the French (37 days) or the Italians (42 days).”

42 days strikes me as ridiculous. Throw in weekends and mandatory holidays, that is not a lot of work days.

Two reasons are cited as why Americans work more than anyone else:

“In the puritanical version of Christianity that has always appealed to Americans, religion comes packaged with the stern message that hard work is good for the soul. Modern Europe has avoided so melancholy a lesson.”

Second, we are under the yoke of hard-bitten capitalism. London’s Daily Telegraph reports that the heavy U.S. work effort does not result from a special affinity Americans have for work; rather, it is because we are “terrified of losing [our] jobs” in a labor environment in which workers have few of the protections Europeans enjoy.”

It seems as even though Americans may not have a special affinity to work, we certainly do equate being employed with a level of success, partly because we know how competitive the landscape is, and that our best efforts are rewarded.

“Among adults who worked 10 hours a week or more in 2002, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that 89% said they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. Only 11% said they were not too satisfied or not at all satisfied.”

This doesn’t necessarily surprise me. “Somewhat satisfied” seems a rather low bar to set, although I can see why responses in Europe may differ. Given the relative choices for employment in the US, individuals rarely would enter into a field that they wouldn’t at least be satisfied working in. Additionally, Europeans, considering the presence of labors unions and government regulation, may feel that there is more that can be done for them.

“Imagine asking people something like this: “If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or would you stop working?” Certainly a high percentage would answer in the affirmative? Wrong again: In 2002, the GSS found that number to be less than a third of all workers. And once again, there is no difference between those at different levels of income or education. 69% of working class folks say they would keep working even if they didn’t have to.”

I probably would answer in the same way, but I am not sure how helpful this question is without comparing it to the European response. If I had enough money to stop working, this would mean that the options of what work I could engage in would be fairly limitless, and I could work in a field which would interest me. Most people do not pick a job that is their hobby for financial or job security reasons, but this goes out the window if one is already provided for. Additionally, there is certainly a sense of self-worth which goes along with being a part of the labor force and contributing to the community, one that is different than that felt in Europe. Americans of any class are much more likely to contribute to a charity, while in Europe certain individuals are guaranteed government payments while not working and gladly accept them.

“For most Americans, work is a rock-solid source of life happiness. Happy people work more hours each week than unhappy people, and work more in their free time as well. Even more tellingly, people with more hours per day to relax outside their jobs are not any happier than those who have less non-work time. In short, the idea that our heavy workloads are lowering our happiness is twaddle.

Obviously, there is a point beyond which work is excessive and lowers life quality. But within reasonable bounds, if happiness is our goal, the American formula of hard work appears to function pretty well.

This may be one reason why Americans tend to score better than Europeans on most happiness surveys. For example, according to the 2002 International Social Survey Programme across 35 countries, 56% of Americans are “completely happy” or “very happy” with their lives, versus 44% of Danes (often cited in surveys as the happiest Europeans), 35% of the French and 31% of Germans. Those sweet five-week vacations and 35-hour workweeks don’t seem to be stimulating all that much félicité. A good old-fashioned 50-hour week might be a better option.”

I agree that at a certain point long hours limit happiness, but bankers working 80 hr weeks often use money as a measuring stick of success, and work hours do not fit into the equation as they do for other professions. Ultimately, I believe Americans enjoy work, period, more than the Europeans, and the number of hours, whether 35 or 50, makes little difference. Americans embrace the pressures of work, and gain more happiness out of their job accomplishments and the byproduct of their success (money) than Europeans do. Increasing hours at work usually is a byproduct of increased responsibility, something we have always equated with personal accomplishment. Spending less time with the family always has a price, but when Americans equate that price to a better living in which they feel they can more readily provide for their family, this is understood as an acceptable sacrifice. The other factor is that increased work hours, if tied to increased pay, allows Americans to do what they do better than anyone else – spend money. Most Europeans, whether they are well off or lower middle class, enjoy much of the same opportunities to enjoy their capital. Houses do not vary in size as they do in America, cars are similar, and vacations consist largely of trips to Spain and Italy, etc. It is also no wonder that Americans also derive their happiness from material goods. Whether it be buying that new sports car or a new Playstation, often our sense of happiness is tied to our ability to play as hard as we work. While most Europeans may devote more time to family, we devote more money to our families, with a penchant for trips to Disneyworld, going to sports games, signing kids up for little league teams, and buying them the latest toys. The basic benchmarks that Americans use to distinguish their successes from that of their neighbors – education, neighborhood, job title – are limited by varying extents for Europeans. Whereas Americans have the opportunity to enter into a university to study liberal arts for four years, and then told that by hard work and acumen they can rise to the highest of any professions, the education system abroad often dictates by high school through tests what course of study and professions are available. This is not to say the job mobility is completely restricted, but the perception of “opportunity” certainly differs than in the U.S.. This sense of opportunity, rather than entitlement, may indicate why Americans have reason to whistle while they work.

While we are on the topic, this City Paper article indicates the downside of this culture, in which some will go to any lengths to get ahead.

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