Working for happiness…

20 March 2015
By Jon Hall and Shivani Nayyar

Today, 20 March, is the International Day of Happiness. There is a growing body of literature on the impacts that many facets of human development have on people’s subjective wellbeing, and vice versa. This post explores some of what we know about the links between happiness and work.

It should not be surprising that unemployment reduces happiness. Plenty of evidence shows that being unable to find a job is strongly and negatively correlated with a range of wellbeing measures. UK data, for instance, showed that the relationship between unemployment and lower subjective wellbeing was well established across a range of measures including lower life satisfaction, lower happiness and increased anxiety1, 2. Nor is this just – or even mainly - because of lower income. In the USA, under 20% of the negative impact of unemployment on wellbeing was thought to be related to lower income. And there are significant spillover effects to the rest of the population too. Higher unemployment rates in the USA – especially when close to home - seem to lower the wellbeing of those who are employed, perhaps because unemployment rates signal the health of the economy3.

Nor is the unhappiness of losing a job something that people adjust to quickly, if at all. German data shows that life satisfaction declined sharply on losing a job and there was little evidence of any improvement among men even after 3 or more years of unemployment (though for women there was some evidence of increasing wellbeing after more than 3 years)4. But although people do not appear to get used to unemployment, there is evidence that social norms matter: when unemployment is more uncommon it is a more stigmatizing experience. In the 1990s researchers showed that suicide among the unemployed in Italy was more common in areas of low-unemployment5. More recent data from the UK6, Germany7, South Africa8 and the USA9 all confirm the importance of social norms.

So unemployment is nearly always miserable. But many types of work can also hurt both human development and subjective wellbeing. Dangerous or menial work, for instance, is likely to lead to unhappiness, and can harm mental and physical health. This is likely to be a particularly significant issue in the developing world although there is, as yet, very little research. Stressful and insecure work takes a toll too. Indeed for many people, it is having a job and perhaps the sense of purpose that comes with it, rather than going to work, that seems to do most for happiness: the employed are often happier when they are not actually at work. Happiness researchers have documented a “weekend effect”, whereby feelings of happiness- as an emotion - rise at the weekend. The effect is most pronounced in full-time workers (twice that of the rest of the population). This might largely be explained by the increased time people spend with friends and family at the weekend, a well-understood driver of happiness.

What do we know about the ways in which work – beyond having a job – promote, or harm, happiness?

Some of the satisfaction derived from working depends on social norms, which are subjective and change as societies evolve10. For example, in a modern, urbanized society, work once considered prestigious in an agrarian economy may no longer hold the same respect. Young people worldwide now have lower interest in agricultural careers for example11.

There are well known links between work, stress and poor health. Perceived job insecurity is associated with poor health for instance12, as is lack of control over one’s workload. A study conducted over many years in the U.K. found that, even after controlling for income and lifestyles, lower level employees had higher mortality from a number of diseases including heart disease13. The underlying causes were less control over their own work at lower levels in the hierarchy, which caused higher stress and worse health14. This lack of predictability has been associated with higher risk of heart disease particularly among employees aged 45 to 5415. Working long hours also increases the risk of heart disease, by up to 40%16. This is likely to be a particularly serious problem in developing countries where people tend to work longer working hours, frequently above 40 hours per week and sometimes as high as 50 hours a week on average, compared to an average 30-40 hours per week in the developed world17. However, evidence from developing countries is harder to come by.

The U.K. study, and others, found several mitigating factors which hold important implications for policy makers. People who report secure jobs enjoy better health and wellbeing. Working with supportive colleagues and managers improves health so much so that the positive ‘weekend effect’ on workers’ happiness is much smaller for “those whose work supervisor is considered a partner rather than a boss and who report trustable and open work environment”18. Job fit – having an opportunity to work at what one does best – is also important for subjective wellbeing: better job fit was associated with higher life evaluations and better daily experiences in all 7 regions of the world studied19. And an active social life and supportive social network are also important20. A good balance between work and leisure positively contributes to workers’ wellbeing, while flexible and shorter working hours enhance family ties and social cohesion.

Perhaps the greatest lesson here is that, in order to promote happiness and human development, a society does not simply need more jobs, but more of the right jobs.

There remains much to be learned but, on this International Day of Happiness, it might be useful to take a moment to reflect on whether this resonates with you. Meanwhile all these issues and many more will be explored in the forthcoming 2015 Human Development Report on Rethinking Work for Human Development.

Jon Hall and Shivani Nayyar are policy specialists at the Human Development Report Office. Views expressed in this article are their own.

1UK Cabinet Office subjective_wellbeing_employment.pdf
2Clark, A. E. (2010). Work, jobs and well-being across the Millennium.International differences in well-being, 436-464.
3Helliwell, J. F., & Huang, H. (2014). New Measures of the Costs of Unemployment: Evidence from the Subjective Well‐Being of 3.3 Million Americans. Economic Inquiry, 52(4), 1485-1502.
4Clark, A. E. (2010). Work, jobs and well-being across the Millennium.International differences in well-being, 436-464.
5Platt, S., Micciolo, R., & Tansella, M. (1992). Suicide and unemployment in Italy: description, analysis and interpretation of recent trends. Social science & medicine, 34(11), 1191-1201.
6Clark, A. E. (2010). Work, jobs and well-being across the Millennium.International differences in well-being, 436-464.
7Clark, A., Knabe, A., & Rätzel, S. (2008). Unemployment as a social norm in Germany.
8Powdthavee, N. (2007). Are there geographical variations in the psychological cost of unemployment in South Africa?. Social Indicators Research, 80(3), 629-652.
9Helliwell, J. F., & Huang, H. (2014). New Measures of the Costs of Unemployment: Evidence from the Subjective Well‐Being of 3.3 Million Americans. Economic Inquiry, 52(4), 1485-1502.
10Andrew Fischer. (2013). The Social Value of Employment and the Redistributive Imperative for Development. Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper.
11Ben White. (2011). Who Will Own the Countryside? Dispossession, rural youth and the future of farming. International Institute of Social Studies; Leavy, J. and Smith, S. (2010) Youth Aspirations, Expectations and Life Choices. FAC Discussion Paper No. 13.
12Ferrie JE, Kivimäki M, Shipley MJ, Davey Smith G, Virtanen M. (2013). “Job insecurity and incident coronary heart disease: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study.” Atherosclerosis, 227(1):178-81.; Burgard, Sarah A., Kalousova, Lucie, Seefeldt, Kristin S. (2012). Perceived Job Insecurity and Health: The Michigan Recession and Recovery Study. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine: Volume 54 - Issue 9 - p 1101–1106

Photo credit: Ballistik_Coffee_Boy, courtesy of Creative Commons

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