Be careful what you wish for: Working less won't make you happy

A study out of South Korea shows confusing results: The workweek was cut short, but they didn't seem to be any more satisfied with their lives.

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(Photo by Alvaro Goveia)

I usually find studies on happiness pretty intuitive; once a week, some group of eggheads empirically prove that loving relationships and being a generous person will make you happier than focusing on making a lot of dough. (Go figure.) But a recent happiness study has me a bit confused.

As reported by Julie Beck in the Atlantic, researchers in Seoul have found that spending less time at the office doesn’t make people any happier (you can see the full study here).


As it turns out, when South Korea instituted a policy to reduce the workweek from 44 to 40 hours — eliminating a half day of work on Saturday, a common feature in a number of Asian countries — both men and women reported that they felt better about the number of hours they were working. But the additional time away from the office didn’t offer them any greater satisfaction when it came to assessing their overall jobs or their lives away from work. There were some suggestions that the workers’ happiness was being compromised in other ways, like getting less time off work for vacation and holidays, and that might be the cause of the moderated mood.

I concur that getting less time off for vacation and holidays might sour an otherwise improving mood. (Once, when I was in France with an ex-boyfriend, we had Sunday lunch with his entire extended French family, and one of his cousins told me that he had 11 weeks vacation every year. You’ve never seen anyone happier, trust me.) But I find it incredibly hard to believe that letting people off the hook for a half day of work (that cuts into the weekend) can’t dramatically improve someone’s quality of life. I spent my summer working overtime in an office, and it really cut into my personal time. So much for my plans of baking fresh bread every week, catching up with my brother over lattes and taking the dog on extra-long walks. I like my work, but I’ve never confused it with my life. As soon as I was sprung from my daily grind, I immediately felt an uptick in both mood and spirit.

I think it’s best to enjoy and derive meaning from your work — but not at the expense of every other area of your life.

We all deserve time away from the office, away from email, away from an incessantly ringing phone (if anyone even uses the phone anymore). I can’t explain the results of the Korean study, but I would challenge anyone to knock off work early on the next sunny warm afternoon. I bet you’ll feel a little happier than if you hadn’t.

What do you think? Would a shorter workweek make you happier? Or would you prefer extra vacation days?