Americans Busy as Bees, Happy as Clams

AEI visiting scholar Arthur C. Brooks writes in the WSJ that, while it’s true that Americans work far more hours and take less vacation time than their European counterparts, it’s not true that we’re therefore less happy.

For most Americans, work is a rock-solid source of life happiness. Happy people work more hours each week than unhappy people, and work more in their free time as well. Even more tellingly, people with more hours per day to relax outside their jobs are not any happier than those who have less non-work time. In short, the idea that our heavy workloads are lowering our happiness is twaddle.

Obviously, there is a point beyond which work is excessive and lowers life quality. But within reasonable bounds, if happiness is our goal, the American formula of hard work appears to function pretty well.

This may be one reason why Americans tend to score better than Europeans on most happiness surveys. For example, according to the 2002 International Social Survey Programme across 35 countries, 56% of Americans are “completely happy” or “very happy” with their lives, versus 44% of Danes (often cited in surveys as the happiest Europeans), 35% of the French and 31% of Germans. Those sweet five-week vacations and 35-hour workweeks don’t seem to be stimulating all that much félicité. A good old-fashioned 50-hour week might be a better option.

Cato’s Will Wilkinson argues that, “the wealthier societies become, the more work is likely to be a source of satisfaction, since the more likely it is that people will have the opportunity to work at jobs they find individually satisfying.” Furthermore,

Whether or not work makes you happy depends on what kind of work it is; whether or not leisure time makes you happy depends on how you use it; whether or not money makes you happy depends on how you spend it. Work, leisure, and money are all good for happiness. What we need to understand is how different kinds of people can best match up with different patterns of working, relaxing, and spending.

That strikes me as reasonable enough. Still, our Western European counterparts presumably have the ability to chose jobs that appeal to them and have a high degree of mobility, too. Why, then, are we happier despite less vacation time?

Is it that we enjoy our jobs more? That our relatively low taxes allow us to enjoy the fruits of our labor more fully and thus make the labor seem more worthwhile? Or are we simply victims of our own propaganda about this being the freest country on earth and the best of all places to live?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. soccer dad says:

    Maybe we’re happier, but according to Paul Krugman all that work’s making us shorter.

  2. Or are we simply victims of our own propaganda about this being the freest country on earth and the best of all places to live?

    Maybe that’s humor, but I honestly can’t tell any more.

  3. Alan Kellogg says:

    It’s simple, we’re an intelligent animal, and the more intelligent an animal is the more it needs to have something to do. We’re not occupied by something, the more unhappy we get.

    Want to keep your teenager out of trouble, load him down with chores.