The paradox of work

While most of us prefer leisure to work, working may actually be making us happier than we think.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent most of his career researching flow – a mental state where we are so engrossed in an activity that we forget our surroundings and the passage of time. He indicates how this state of mind corresponds to the happiest moments of our lives.

Csikszentmihalyi measured when people are happier on a real-time basis. He found that we were more likely to be happy while at work (54% of the time) than at leisure (merely 18% of the time). However, when people were asked for a preference, they often preferred leisure to work. Csikszentmihalyi’s research exposes this conflict between our choices and our experienced happiness.

Given this truth, we are likely to undervalue the role of work in our lives, and overvalue leisure. The whole premise of Universal Basic Income is that work exists solely to help us earn our livelihood, and that if this money is paid out, we could fill our working hours with meaningful leisure. But the truth might just be more complicated than that.

Work gives us an external structure in the absence of any. It imposes clear goals and targets for us to meet, based on which we structure our weekdays, and therefore, our lives. Work also helps us savour our leisure better. There is nothing like a busy period at week that makes our weekends or holidays more enjoyable.

The paradox of work is that we are likely to underestimate the crucial role it plays in our life, and therefore, fall into the trap of designing short-sighted policies.

Inspiration: Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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