In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity would allow people to work far fewer hours a century later. We have become much more productive—output per hour worked increased more than fourfold between 1950 and 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the amount we work hasn’t fallen anywhere near as fast. In the United States, the average working year went from 1,963 hours in 1950 to 1,790 hours last year, a drop of less than 10%.
This has prompted some people to wonder, is it time for people to work less? Psychologists are asking a related question: are people overearning, and compromising their happiness in the process? Research suggests the answer to that second question is yes.
The pursuit of happiness is one of America’s guiding principles—Thomas Jefferson even put it into the US Declaration of Independence. The problem is that people are not always very good at predicting what will make them happy. That’s partly because we make choices that might seem good at the time, but don’t make us happier.
The issue provides plenty of fodder for psychological researchers. Christopher K. Hsee, Theodore O. Yntema Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at Chicago Booth, has spent two decades conducting research at the intersection of psychology, economics, and happiness as a leader in the emerging field of “hedonomics,” a term he coined in a 2008 article with Reid Hastie, Robert S. Hamada Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, and Jingqiu Chen of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “Whereas economics studies how to maximize wealth with limited resources, hedonomics studies how to maximize happiness with limited wealth,” the authors explain.
Hedonomists see themselves as providing a complementary approach to a traditional economist’s view of the world, treating happiness almost as a double bottom line. The hedonomist’s goal is to understand why people make mistakes in predicting what will make them happy and to help rethink their choices.
When less is better
People often feel one way when they make a purchase, or any kind of decision, but forget that they are likely to feel differently later—what psychologists call “projection bias.” The tattoo a woman wants at age 17 may be less thrilling at age 50. The two-pound bag of pork rinds a man buys when shopping on an empty stomach may seem less appetizing a few hours later. (For more on projection bias, read this article on why it's a mistake to buy a hot ride on a hot day.) The mistake here is that shoppers focus on how they feel at the moment of purchase, and neglect how they will feel when it comes to consuming their purchases.
Because people focus on how they feel at the moment of purchase, they can think that more is better, only to find out later that this may not be the case. Say you’re in an electronics store choosing between two flat-screen televisions. You opt for the more expensive model that offers better definition, which is noticeable when you compare the two televisions side by side. According to Hsee, you would probably be better off buying the cheaper and lower-definition model. That’s because once you get the television home, away from the higher-definition model, you won’t be able to detect the missing pixels—and you’ll have more money left in your pocket.
In fact, even when people think more is better at the moment of purchase, sometimes their experience later is actually worse. Hsee finds in a study that people are willing to pay more for an overfilled cup with less ice cream in it than an under-filled one with more when they judge the two servings separately, but not when they judge them together. Imagine you’re at the beach with your family and you go off to buy everyone an ice cream. Presented with the two options, you buy the under-filled cup because it has more ice cream. But think about it from your kids’ perspective: they only see the ice cream serving that you bring them, either an overflowing one or an under-filled one. For your kids, the overfilled cup is likely to make them happier, even though it contains less ice cream. Hsee’s study shows that people, when presented with just one ice cream rather than offered a choice, are willing to pay more for the overfilled cup with less ice cream in it.
This suggests that people easily make the assumption that more is better when, on closer examination, that’s not necessarily true. Hsee extends this line of inquiry, ultimately into the workplace.
Testing the theory
Are people working too much? A psychological researcher trying to determine the answer would first need to ask, how would we even know? If someone works a lot, she may have perfectly good reasons. Perhaps she wants to save enough money to retire comfortably, to have a cash cushion for emergencies, or to have money to pass on to heirs. To answer the question, Hsee and his colleagues tried to strip away all complicating factors in order to study the underlying psychology.
Doing this is “an advantage rather than a defect or compromise,” says Hsee. His rationale is that if you remove the reasons people have to earn more money and yet still find that they overearn, “that shows the overearning is real.”
To find out, Hsee and colleagues Jiao Zhang of the University of Miami, Cindy F. Cai of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Shirley Zhang, a Booth PhD student, designed experiments they describe in their published paper as a “highly simplified yet well-controlled miniature experimental paradigm for exploring the issue.” They say the contrived features in the experiments are “crucial for us to control for normative reasons for overearning effects and test for pure overearning tendencies.”
The researchers first ran an experiment in which they studied how participants accumulated chocolates. They broke it into two phases: an earning phase and a consumption phase. In the former, each participant sat at a computer and listened to pleasant piano music from the Final Fantasy X video game. While listening to the music, people had the option to simulate work by pressing a button that interrupted the music with a brief, unpleasant noise similar to the sound of wood being sawed.
Surely work is more enjoyable than the sound of wood being sawed? Many people like their work, but those people are a minority of the global workforce, says Hsee. From farmers in India and construction workers in China to investment bankers and lawyers in London and New York, many people do not enjoy their jobs but continue to work in order to earn more. “I think [the unpleasant sound] is representative of a lot of work that people don’t particularly enjoy,” says Hsee. “If anything, I think actual work could be more painful.”
The more times a participant pressed the button, the more chocolates she earned. The researchers used the rewards to define “high earners” and “low earners.” High earners were told to press the noise button 20 times to earn a chocolate. The less lucky low earners had to press the button 120 times to earn a chocolate.
In the consumption phase, each participant got to enjoy the chocolates she had earned. However, participants had been told before the experiment began that they were not permitted to take any leftovers with them when the experiment was over, which eliminated a reason to earn more than they could eat. Participants had no need for a cushion in case of an emergency, no ability to pass their earnings on to others, and no reason to say that “working” was enjoyable.
In the earning phase, participants consistently pressed and repressed the button to simulate work. This tendency was particularly pronounced among high earners, who only had to press the noise button 20 times to earn a chocolate. They earned 10.7 chocolates on average, but ate just 4.3 of them, letting the rest go to waste. People who had to press the noise button 120 times for a single chocolate did not show the same pattern of overearning; they earned 2.5 chocolates on average. Even though high earners were six times more productive than low earners, high earners did not recognize that they could afford to relax and earn a little less.
Hsee says this indicates mindless accumulation. Participants focused too much on their immediate context, listening to noises in order to earn chocolates. They thought little about the experience of actually enjoying the fruits—or in this case chocolates—of their labor. People focused on the immediate question of whether or not to press a button and failed to think about how much chocolate they wanted. They mindlessly pressed the button until they got tired of it rather than deciding they wanted to earn, say, five chocolates, earning that many, and then relaxing. As a result, they wound up pressing the button more than necessary to earn the number of chocolates they ultimately ate.
Think first, then work
Would a simple reminder inspiring people to think about how many chocolates they actually want have reduced their tendency to mindlessly accumulate chocolates? To find out, the researchers performed a second study, which they began by first asking half of the participants to think about how many rewards they wanted to earn.
The researchers introduced another twist into the experimental paradigm: this time, participants had to consume all the rewards they earned. As the researchers couldn’t ethically force-feed chocolates to participants, they instead had participants earn jokes that appeared on a computer screen. The researchers required participants to “consume” all the jokes they earned within a three-minute window. Because the jokes appeared automatically, this meant that if a participant earned too many jokes, they would appear and be replaced by a new joke very quickly.
The optimal number of jokes for participants to earn averaged out to 6.6. If a participant earned that many jokes, she had time to read each and enjoy a good chuckle. If she earned more, however, each joke would scroll by so quickly that she wouldn’t have the time to read, process, and chuckle.
The prompt had the desired effect. Participants who launched into the study unprompted earned 11.3 jokes, far more than they were able to enjoy. But participants who first thought about how many jokes they wanted earned an average of 6.9 jokes, just over the ideal amount. More importantly, those participants, when asked at the end of the study about their level of happiness, reported being significantly happier than those who had made no predictions. When people paid just a little more attention to how much they thought they would want in the future, rather than focusing only on the immediate decision about whether or not to work, they worked less and became happier.
From lab to reality
Hsee notes that the current research is based only on simple laboratory experiments, but it provides initial evidence that people overearn without obvious reasons. The results illustrate a behavioral tendency to mindlessly accumulate goods, and it may reveal itself in more complex situations such as the workplace. Even when people in a lab are productive enough to be able to afford to stop working for chocolates, they continue accumulating them. Similarly, he says that the study’s findings suggest that even when people can afford to stop working for money, they may continue accumulating money without pausing to consider whether they really want it.
Hsee’s lab experiments may be contrived, but nevertheless test a hypothesis, which could be further tested in field experiments. Hsee hopes that people qualified to run field studies will take up the question of overearning. Field studies will be muddied by complicating factors and can’t offer the clean conclusions that a lab experiment can, but they will reflect reality. “We’re not claiming our result directly applies to real life, but we suggest it’s a possibility,” says Hsee.
While the lab results highlight an overearning tendency, they also suggest an antidote, Hsee says. If you get the opportunity to do extra work and earn some more money, for example, think about whether or not it’s worth working those extra hours. The additional work could be enjoyable, or it could advance your career, but make the decision consciously. The research can’t tell you whether or not you should work less, but it does suggest that if you take the time to ask the question of yourself, you’ll be able to come up with a good answer.