The Secret to Happiness? It Doesn’t Really Surprise Me…

A recent study out of Cambridge University offers some insight as to what the key to happiness may be.

The study surveyed 5,000 people during the past year and found the following:

  • those who lost their jobs during the pandemic were the the most likely to be unhappy
  • the next unhappiest group were those working five days a week
  • the happiest group were those working just one or two days per week

These results surprised Brendan Burchell, professor in social sciences, and one of the lead authors of the study. “It was an unexpected finding because we had assumed that the maximum levels of wellbeing would be among those working three or four days a week.”

He added: ‘Why do we think working 40 hours a week is normal? At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution people were working 100-hour weeks but in the UK that stopped decades ago.”

So I knew it. The 40-hour work week is just a number pulled out of thin air.

If people can get their job done in one or two days, why are they putting in 40 hours?

In this latest study, the scientists found that working just one day a week is enough to provide the mental wellbeing and happiness benefits that employment can offer. But working less than one full day a week can have a serious negative impact on one’s mental health.

As the Guardian points out, an unspoken assumption of all this is that if people are only working one day per week, their income would be supplemented by some form of Universal Basic Income. As I’ve written before, I am a fan of such plans.

So bottom line, work less, be happier. But still do some work.

I did find it ironic that the results of this study came out the same week that a group of junior bankers at Goldman Sachs went viral on social media, in which they complained about what they described as workplace abuse, including 100-hour weeks.

They must be really unhappy…




99 thoughts on “The Secret to Happiness? It Doesn’t Really Surprise Me…

    1. I was thinking the same thing. But my guess is that most people would take two 12-hour days over four 6-hour days. And I’m also guessing that many people could be almost as productive in those 24 hours as they are now in a traditional 40 hour worl week.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I once worked a three-days-on, three-days-off shift, in the military, 12 hours per work day. Everyone loved it. But when you do the math, that averages out to a 42-hour work week. Kind of a sneaky way to get people to work more than 40 hours a week, without complaint.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. No, I knew it at the time. But when you’re in the military you are technically on duty 24 hours a day, and are never entitled to overtime. So there was no use complaining.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Sure you may put in long hours at times in the military and risk your life. My good friend Don Van Eynde was a battalion commander in Viet Nam. He retired as a full colonel and started a new career by getting a Ph.D. from Columbia University and working his way up to full professor of leadership and organization behavior at Trinity University. All the while he has military retirement pay, totally medical care for himself and his wife, totally free medications, officers club privileges, discount shopping at the BX, and real deals on military aircraft travel and military hotels in Hawaii and other nice places.

        His military record and other criteria landed him annual consulting jobs with NASA that pay much more than his Trinity salary.

        My point is that there’s often a lot more to a career than weekly pay. Harvard professors often get much more consulting than they make from Harvard. But if they weren’t at Harvard they probably would not get those consulting gigs.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I’d consider coming out of retirement and working a few hours per week if it was the right job. We’re in good shape financially, but I do miss the camaraderie of working with others for a shared goal.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. yes, there are definitely some benefits to being involved socially with people, whether it is through work or some other form of activity. I wouldn’t mind a part-time job when I retire from teaching…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The main point of work is to have people to talk to! 40 hour week perhaps comes from the idea of 8 hours each of work rest and play – in a five day week – though God instituted 6 day week! Happiness comes from having leisure and creative time – with enough work so you can afford some fun.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am happiest when my financial needs are met with maybe a little extra to enjoy some leisure activities. Whatever hours it takes to meet those needs is what makes me happiest. Less hours makes me worry financially, more hours leaves me no time to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Interesting and thought-provoking post, Jim!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I just wonder how many people, maybe jsut thinking of white-collar jobs, could be just as productive in a 16-24 hour work week as they currently are in a 40 hour work week. Wasn’t technology supposed to make us more productive? If so, why are we still working 40 hours?

      It seems as if the enhanced productivity should lead to more leisure time…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You make a good point Jim. But that would require employers to care about employee health and happiness over profits, and that just never seems to be the case. A wonderful dream though….

        Liked by 2 people

  4. this makes perfect sense to me, we all need to work to earn income, feel we are doing something worthwhile and maintain social connections, but when it becomes the main focus of our lives, and most of our time and energy, cutting into what we’d like to do when not working, the unhappiness level rises.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Jim,
    Personal income in the USA is about $20 trillion. If you propose a two-day work week then Universal Basic Income must make up about 60% or $12 trillion in new government spending with some uncertainties such as taxation. If the UBI is tax free then the government must raise the $12 trillion entirely with new money.

    How to you propose to pay for your UBI without creating hyper inflation with government printing of money?
    Another consideration is that the majority of USA workers have benefits that are not included in personal income calculations like health care insurance and unemployment benefits. Are you going to make employers in the public and private sectors keep paying the full benefits on two-day work weeks?

    I think it’s time to address the feasibility of UBI and why no nation on earth, to my knowledge, has UBI nationwide.
    Also mention your UBI priority among other proposed programs for green initiatives, Medicare-for-All, bailout of state pensions, free college, nationwide daycare, food stamps, housing for everybody, hotels for migrant families, etc.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Bob, for your insights. I guess one point I would make is that I’m not sure if we went to a two-day work week that the economy would drop off by 60%. My guess is that there is a bit of slack in many 40 hour work weeks, especially for white collar workers. Plus, wasn’t technology supposed to help increase our productivity? If it has, then why are we still working 40 hours per week?

      I just think there should be some sort of productivity dividend from all the advances in robotics and AI, and that people should reap that benefit through shorter work weeks and a program like UBI, which perhaps could be fully funded by the advances in productivity from all these advanced technologies.

      And if companies can maintain their profits with its employees working shorter weeks, then yes, they should still be able to pay full-time benefits…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting. I probably wouldn’t mind how much work I did if it was work I loved, and therefore maybe not really work. But it if was work I didn’t enjoy, even a few hours would be too much. However, sometimes that’s necessary to pay the bills. Universal Basic Income sounds a little like socialism to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Norah,

      Castro lamented about this when he said the Cuban model was a failure where all workers (including physicians and hotel maids) earned almost no wages but received all of their basic needs free even if they did not work, including housing, food, beer, transportation, health care, education, etc.

      People would work if they liked their jobs, but Cuba had to import workers for jobs like hotel maids and hard labor jobs.

      Cuba has since abandoned the uniformity of wages policy and moved toward capitalism in business and private property ownership.

      Physicians worked hard to learn their trade but most of them were doing so in hopes of having a trade when they escaped from Cuba.

      It amazes me how so many voters in the USA still opt for a Cuban model knowing full well that it would fail in the USA.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I don’t know much about Cuba, Bob. I don’t think socialism isn’t perfect but neither is capitalism. I think we can take the best of both, and create a kinder, gentler form of capitalism that takes care of those most vulnerable. And a system that doesn’t punish or reward someone just because of the ovarian lottery, as Warren Buffett calls it…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Do you have some cost estimates of how much a serious Guaranteed Annual Income will work for both the unfortunate plus those who simply refuse to work at any jobs they don’t enjoy? Karl Marx called these non-workers the Industrial Reserve Army who cannot or will not work productively for the common good in any economy. At best these people will only work at what they like like producing goods and services nobody wants to buy like lousy paintings or lousy music.

        The problem with the Cuban model is that it was so generous with housing, food, medical care, transportation, education, etc. that it created many more people in the Industrial Reserve Army than people who were willing to work productively. Castro declared the Cuban model a failure because “nobody wanted to work.”

        Since you are promoting Guaranteed Annual Income for the USA, please give us your cost estimates. This is very difficult, because as the GAI gets larger more and more people opt for it instead of productive wages. Keeping it minimal promotes poverty. Making it generous creates a massive Industrial Reserve Army of non-workers. Hence, there’s bad logic in the GAI promotion. How would you resolve this paradox?

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I don’t have any data on UBI on a grand scale; but it seems as if the small experiments that are in place seem to have overall positive results.

        Your argument seems to favor a Theory X view of the world and people -that people are lazy and dislike work. I’m more of a Theory Y guy, that people gain satisfaction from their work and take pride in it.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. To the contrary Jim, I think most professionals love their work and don’t even count the work hours. As a university professor I probably put in an average of 60 hours per week in teaching, service, consulting, and research. I don’t know what that average is because I loved my work and did not count the hours. I think other professionals (academic and non-academic) love their work and don’t log their efforts by the hour.

        I love my work so much that I continue to blog and consult for no pay. I’m not alone.

        Your hang up about 40-hour work weeks is misguided since most professionals don’t really keep track of their time or get paid by the hour. My wife’s super spine surgeon in Boston does surgeries taking 14-hours or more per surgery. The next day he does office visits followed by another day of surgery followed by another day of office visits etc. At this point he’s no longer working just for the substantial money he makes. He’s working because he has unique skills for helping others and often does these surgeries for free.

        Many professionals (think writers) get paid by the job rather than the time the job takes. They judge their successes and failures by the job, not by the hour.

        There are many jobs that are hard to love. Examples include roofers under a blazing sun, hotel maids, landscapers breaking their backs, etc. This is what Castro found in the Cuban model. There are some jobs that workers avoided most when given the same incomes whether they worked or not. There are other jobs that people were willing to do for very low pay plus the generous Cuban ration book and free housing. Examples including teaching, physician services, and military service.

        Some jobs are rewarding and would be performed for free given a substantial UBI. Our hospitals will soon be filled with volunteer workers when the pandemic is lifted. During the pandemic food pantries are filled with volunteer workers.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. it seems like you agreed with Castro’s assessment that “nobody wanted to work”, if they were getting their basic needs taken care of. I don’t think that’s the case. As you point out, people work for reasons other than pay, and would continue to do so if there was UBI. It’s just that UBI, like the stimulus payments, may help to reduce the stress that many people are feeling. And if there are jobs that people don’t like, it seems like there should be a technology solution for such work.

        and by the way, it’s not fair making me think… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I didn’t mention this before, but when there’s a UBI there’s a tendency to turn to either the underground economy or to non-paying hobby employment. Non-traditionally the UBI enables artists and musicians to work on hobby interests that generally will not pay well. Traditional underground employment entails secretive cash wages without any benefits (no medical insurance) or tax withholding.

        My hypothesis is that if there’s a nationwide UBI you will see an accompanying spike in the underground economy if workers in the legitimate labor market can lose UBI benefits such as when UBI cash is not given when taxed earnings exceed $20,000. Many current workers turn to the underground economy to avoid losing welfare benefits. They will do the same thing when there are UBI benefits at risk.

        For example, a parent on welfare who would lose that welfare working legitimately as a janitor my turn to the underground economy for work cleaning houses and businesses. The underground economy is estimated by USA Today to be over $2 trillion.

        I lived in San Antonio for 24 years, a city of over a million people, many of whom hire out for underground cash wages. Some are highly skilled (think car mechanics working in chop shops or plumbers and electricians). Each morning thousands of workers congregate on selected street corners in San Antonio and are picked up by employers in vans and pickups (sometimes buses).

        Immigration authorities and police tend to overlook the underground economy workers, because the majority of those workers are bringing home cash wages to support families that would otherwise be turn in desperation to serious crime like home invading, armed robbery, or car jacking without such underground cash wages.

        Liked by 2 people

      7. You seem to have read a lot more on UBI than I have; I don’t recall reading any studies of current UBI programs around the world (there are so few) that mention the side effects you note. I could see those side effects happen in theory, but I would not imagine it would be a significant amount of the total UBI benefits paid…

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Most of the research on UBI relative to underground economy is extracted from welfare and the underground economy research.

        “After two years in the neighborhood Sharff concluded that almost every man, woman, and older child participated in the underground economy and that no welfare recipient reported such income to the welfare department.” —

        Do you have any reason to believe that if UBI replaces welfare that UBI recipients will not participate in the underground economy if reporting wages otherwise reduces UBI cash income?

        The USA is somewhat unique in that our underground economy is so huge relative to most other nations. This, in part, is due to having such a large USA proportion of the population on some form of welfare. For example, Finland is a happy nation without much diversity (98.5% white) with a much lower proportion of single parents (read that also as single parents on welfare).

        It’s also due to the USA not enforcing laws that attempt to minimize participation in the underground economy. I mentioned before that in part this is due, in my opinion, to officials thinking that cash income from the underground economy helps reduce violent crime like armed robbery, home invasions, and muggings.

        Liked by 2 people

      9. interesting research, Bob. I will take a look at it. But I will also say that it is not just welfare recipients that participate in the welfare economy. There are many tax savvy six-figure income individuals who do not report some of their income…

        Liked by 1 person

      10. That’s a more informed comment than mine. Interesting the idea of having a trade for when having escaped Cuba.
        I’m pleased I am not the one drawing up political or economic systems. Such a responsibility.

        Liked by 2 people

      11. yes, it is tough being a leader. and what makes it harder is that no matter what you decide, there will be a significant number of people who think you have no idea what you are doing…

        Liked by 2 people

    2. yes, it does make a difference if we enjoy what we are doing. But I jsut wonder if people could be almost as productive working 24 hours per week vs. 40 hours per week, at least for white collar workers. After all, wasn’t technology supposed to make us more efficient, and if so, why are we still working 40 hours per week.

      There’s no doubt my views have started to lean more towards socialism over the past 25 years. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think there’s a lot of digital ‘paper shuffling’ going on, Jim. I think employees are often required to collect, record and evaluate, often meaningless, data because it can be done, not because it’s of value. I know that was so in my employment as a teacher anyway – way too much data collection.
        I remember way back in the 80s, when personal and office computers were just coming in, being told that by the turn of the century we’d have so much free time because of the effectiveness of digital solutions that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. Unfortunately, I think, the opposite has happened. We’ve become slaves to these digital tyrants.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. It is hard to comment because I didn’t take the time to read the study and I’m not sure what the parameters were or how happiness was measured. I think being involuntarily unemployed would make people very unhappy. Being voluntarily unemployed (retired) also makes a lot of people happy.

    Regarding Cuba, I’ve been there once and stayed in casa particulars, an experiment in entrepreneurship where people can rent rooms to tourists. In general, people had frustrations with their government and economic system (don’t we all) but were also proud of their system in many ways. There is hardly any crime or illegal drugs. They like Americans but seem to have little desire to recreate the problems and poverty of greed-is-good America or the Cuban system before Castro.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi John. It is hard to make too many statements about the study without knowing all the details, but it seems like there is a happy medium for those who need to work, somewhere more than 0 and less than 40. If technology was supposed to make us more productive, then why are we still working 40 hours per week?

      And thanks for your insights on Cuba. It’s good to know that the people living there have some pride in their country and that the country seems to have gotten a few things right, at least compared to the U.S….

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Jim, I appreciate this discussion. For those entering retirement, they need to consider how to stay active in some way. It will increase their happiness. My writing and blogging has helped to fill this need for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. And here I thought I enjoyed working more when I was in school because any money I made just went into my pockets lol. But it makes sense. When I was having trouble finding a job and there was a feeling of emptiness like I wasn’t accomplishing anything even though I had applied for like three jobs that day. I now have a job that I enjoy, but now that I am reaching my limits of what I can squeeze into a forty hour window, there is also a lot of added stress…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Personally I was happiest when I worked an 18 hour week. It helped that I love the job but working 2 and a half days made life quite relaxing, though I couldn’t afford to sustain that living!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ve always wondered what a system with people working less and more people in employment would look like. I’m sure an economist would tell me it wouldn’t work.

        Liked by 2 people

  11. I know virtually nothing about UBI…I think that when you work, it needs to be fulfilling and that’s the key and if you have a good work-life balance that is great and even better….I am enjoying the comments and differing opinions 🙂 x

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This thread implies that the 40-hour “rule” was imposed by mean employers. Actually it was created by employees and unions while being resisted by employers. The 40-hour rule was put in place so that employers found harder to make or entice employees to work more than 40 hours in any week without having to pay more for work hours above 40 hours.

      My point is that the 40-hour “rule” was imposed by employees and unions. Nothing in that rule says you can’t work less than 40 hours. For example, nurses in the USA commonly opt for three 12-hour shifts per week giving them full-time pay for 36 clock hours of work.

      University faculty (full-time) are seldom affected by the 40-hour rule and are usually paid the same whether they work 20 hours or 60 hours a week. Often their work entails reading, conducting research, and writing as they choose. Top faculty are usually putting in more than 40-hours each week and even on holidays and summer days because they are motivated by reputation building to make them more mobile among potential employers.

      That is my case where I greatly improved my income, teaching hours, and class size in a succession of four universities. For the last 24 years I was, in my opinion, overpaid for teaching five hours per week in two courses having less than ten students. I think I still worked over 60 hours per week until I retired, because I enjoyed my teaching, service, and research.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I realize that the 40 hour work week represented a reduction in what the hours used to be, and it was a concession to labor and unions. But again, there is nothing magic about it. If we can get the same GDP out of people working 30 hours, then why shouldn’t we?

        And if you want to work more than that go right ahead, but it would be your choice to do so without any extra compensation, at least immediately. The increased compensation could come later, as you note, through raises and bonuses because of a job well done.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. it was interesting reading the different thoughts, but I agree, work needs to be fulfilling and it seems as if many people do not want to be working as many hours as they currently are…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. As somebody who works 60 plus hours a week I would jump at the chance to work only one day. Could society really function like that though even with a universal income (whatever society is).

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes absolutely… Wfh has shown that people don’t need to put so many hours of work or be present physically but I guess employers want full value for their money

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One complication is the supplementing of cash wages with benefits such as family medical insurance contributions, retirement contributions, unemployment benefits, sabbatical leaves, travel expenses, sick leaves, etc. It’s quite easy in many cases to give employees half-time compensation, but it’s very difficult in most instances to give them half-time benefits. For example, how do you divide medical insurance contributions into parts?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I guess I still don’t see a need for half-time compensation for someone who is just as productive as before, but now they don’t need to put in a 40-hour work week to accomplish such productivity. Shouldn’t their pay remain the same?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I think full value is different than face time. I think, as you note, that employees can still be quite productive without having to be present, and for many jobs, not have to put in as many hours as they currently do…

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post. I was curious about how the researchers defined happiness in this paper. It appears that they measured the presence of: 1) mental illness and distress, and 2) life satisfaction, which is an overall evaluation of whether or not the participant is living his or her best life. Because hard work comes with some distress and people are probably thinking to themselves, “I only work two days a week. I am living my best life,” the results seem reasonable. I wonder if the results would have been different if the researchers measured affect balance or flow state as their happiness measures.

    Here is a link to original research is anyone is interested:

    Liked by 1 person

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