Balance “work” with “life” and you’ll fail at both


People today have more wealth and leisure time than ever, and they work less than ever. But depression rates are at an all-time high. Let’s consider why.

People spend their abundant wealth and free time on recreation. It’s fun to ski, drink, romance, and even watch TV, play video games and preen/protest.

People often define those fun recreational activities as “life” and the less-fun activities that pay for those fun recreational activities as “work.” Almost by definition, people find recreation more fun than work.

Work consequently takes a backseat to their recreational “life.” They don’t work hard and don’t achieve much. Their half-hearted work produces half-assed results.

That’s OK, they tell themselves, because happiness lies in fun. And fun lies in recreation, not work.

But they’re wrong. Their belief that recreation produces happiness works no better than they do. Their recreational “life” seldom makes them happy.

So, they double down. Today’s people work the least of any people in history, but they assume the reason for their unhappiness is that they’re still working too much. They think they need to increase their already-high dose of recreation.

Frustrated and angry, they use their lavish free time to bash the system that produced it. If only the system were fairer – if only it were a system permitting them to work even less and get paid even more – then they’d finally be happy, or so they think.

They get defensive and even quasi-religious about their faith that more recreation produces more happiness, even though their personal experience is that it doesn’t. Anyone who doesn’t buy into their work-interferes-with-life dogma gets bad-mouthed as a “workaholic.” They indoctrinate children and students with that same failed faith. Misery loves company.

Here’s the flaw in the belief system of these people. They have confused happiness with fun. Amusement park rides are fun, but they don’t make people happy. What makes people happy are constructive activities such as serving others, accomplishing goals, overcoming obstacles and building things.

In short, what makes people happy is work. It’s what we’re made for.

What makes people the very happiest of all is to throw themselves passionately into that work. Great achievements require great effort and great emotional investment, and consequently produce great happiness. Little achievements require little effort and little emotional investment, and consequently produce little happiness.

Achievers know this. If Steve Jobs could have gotten rich without working 110-hour weeks to build Apple Computer into one of the premier technological companies in the world, and could have instead spent an entire wealthy life engaged in recreation, I’ll bet he wouldn’t have taken that deal.

He didn’t build Apple for the money. He did it because he was wired to achieve. Achievement is what made him happy. He did it for the glory.

Most of us are wired that way, but many of us are unaware of it. Many people are puzzled that a new job fails to make them happy even though it enables them to have more recreation – a bigger “life” as they see it – by paying them more money for less work. They fail to see that they’re depressed not despite the wealth and leisure time in today’s society, but because of it. In short, the word “but” in the first paragraph above should be “therefore.”

So how do we solve this problem?

Not by lessening the wealth of society, though that would certainly be the outcome of utopian social planners who think they can socially engineer us to happiness.

No, the way to solve the problem is to recognize that work is not something separate from and in opposition to life. Along with faith and family, work is a key ingredient of life. Recreation, in contrast, is mere amusement.

Like Steve Jobs, people who work hard and passionately are on the road to happiness. Along the way, incidentally, they help build a better world for the rest of us.

Balancing work with recreational “life” makes you a failure at both. Pouring yourself passionately into work makes you a success at both.

My advice to the recreational work-a-phobes is to stop looking for life in all the wrong places. Get to work, and you just might find a life.

15 thoughts on “Balance “work” with “life” and you’ll fail at both

  1. Bravo! “…and on the seventh day you shall rest.” But people forget about the “six days shalt thou labor” part.

    • Bingo. All Adam and Eve had to do —at least according to John Milton’s account of our most basic primer in moral philosophy — was tend the garden, a phrase and a lifestyle wisely endorsed by Voltaire in “Candide.” But the forbidden fruit represented something else — more status, more autonomy and “social justice,” an easier row to hoe, less boredom — in short, a “real” (but deadly) Paradise.

  2. Well, Jobs was the wr5ong role model, he shipped my Industry, the Plastic Injection Mold Making Industry to China costing me my livelihood as a precision Mold Maker, he was a genius and a globalist, and he supported the policies that chased his manufacturing off shore. He helped make China the power house it is today because he was short sighted in other areas.

    • Glenn is not as prone as you and I to see “the dark side” of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Where he sees enormous human achievement — which is undeniable and admirable — I see a kind of “overreach” into “mover and shaker” territory that is off-putting for reasons I find hard to articulate, but it’s related to my aversion to globalism.

    • I don’t see Steve Jobs as a role model, except in one respect: He was an achiever. As were Napoleon Bonaparte, Ronald Reagan, Joseph Stalin, Christopher Columbus, Genghis Khan, Jonas Salk and Edmund Hillary.

      Those people have little in common except they were achievers. And, I suspect, their achievements made them happy (yes, even Stalin).

  3. Freud once said that “Basically all we have in life is love and work”, that is why in the past I found vacations where I did nothing but “chill” to be boring and depressing and left me anxious to return home and get back to work. I am not even a fan of Federal holidays being on Monday since I associate Monday’s with school or work. I have been saying for a few years now (I am already at retirement age but continue to work). “Thank God It’s Monday”. It is not that I necessarily love what I do, I don’t but I’ve been doing it for 23 years and I love the idea of having a job, to go to, good benefits, a routine, seeing my coworkers, and creating boundaries between my home and work lives. That is why the lockdown which has me working at home remotely has been so depressing the past five months.

    • Sometimes I feel the same. I retired from public education a couple of years ago, but I still sub just because. I retired in the first place because the ratio of good students vs. meatheads finally tipped to the meathead category. I retired because I got tired of the kids. BUT, maybe I can go back now that the kids aren’t there. Great hours, great vacation, extra money. . . Yeah, I could see it working.

  4. However one caveat. The word “work” needs to be defined. Work is raising a child as well as building a company. Going to work is not necessarily working and staying home is not recreation is it? I often told my children that going to school was their “job” and doing well was what was expected of them. It was work for them and it paid off in a better life doing jobs they love to work at. A sense of satisfaction comes from doing a job, any job, well. And that sense of satisfaction is what makes us happy. You really don’t get a sense of satisfaction from a party do you? I think not.
    Set a goal, plan the work, work the plan and happiness will follow the satisfaction of a job well done.

  5. I totally agree with this article. Nothing is more satisfying than working your butt off and then sitting back to view your handiwork. (Like making a great meal that everyone enjoys. Or creating a garden and tending it.) Work is wholly satisfying if it’s the work I like to do. But even if it’s not, doing a job well, like another commenter stated, brings great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. I especially love it if someone else notices my handiwork and gives me plaudits. I will happily take a bow.

  6. The truest and most salient point in this typically insightful essay is, “Along with faith and family, work is a key ingredient of life.” Work, in itself can not satisfy, unless it is dedicated to achieving something higher and more noble. Conversely, even the most menial task can be uplifting if done well and dedicated to honoring the Creator of All Things. I am reminded of the story of the Russian babushkas whose job was to sweep the streets of Moscow. When asked why they seemed so happy, they explained that they did it as a sacrifice to God, thus imbuing it with meaning and significance,even grandeur. From my perspective of 70 years on this Earth, I can say that my greatest satisfactions have come from working to give my wife and children a safe and supportive home, working to have a satisfying marriage and working to bring up our children (and grandchildren, praise be!) to be the best they can be. Yes, I count all that “work,” because it demands effort,but it is what we are called by God to do, and is thus intrinsically noble, uplifting and satisfying. “Play” (what you call “fun recreational activities”) gives momentary diversion, even happiness but never true joy. (Nevertheless, when I do “play,” I give it my best effort as well, since anything worth doing is worth doing well.) The tragedy plaguing certain segments of our society is a belief that they are entitled to immediate satisfaction of all their desires, without effort, and they become frustrated when they find that life is simply not like that. Not now, not ever.

  7. The anti-work bias set in on me decades before Bernie Sanders’ apostles of free stuff came along.

    It began with Thoreau’s “Walden,” the self-aggrandizing little fiction by a social misfit who became a philosopher king by the shores of Walden Pond. Oh, I suppose he worked — growing beans, winterizing his hut, trekking to Mom’s for cookies — but he said loud and clear that “getting and spending” were soul-sucking activities.

    Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” was more problematic. For one thing, I wanted to look and dress like Gregory Peck, commuting from my Madison Avenue executive office to Westport, CT. But still, the novel and movie said, “This is a hollow man.”

    And then there was Vance Packard’s “The Status Seekers,” which also questioned the motivations and worth of the rat-race.

    Although I never hooked up with the Woodstock Generation, for most of my life I claimed that the three best things about my teaching job were June, July, and August. This, in fact, was not the case, but it helped me compensate for the rap that “those who can’t do, teach.” If I was a loser, I was free, by God.

  8. I slept and dreamt that life was joy; I awoke and saw that life was service; I acted, and behold, service was joy. – Rabidranath Tagore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s