Headcase

Thoughts on the mind.

Why We Work

Finding meaning in a job can be surprisingly easy.

One of the best social science articles I've read this year is Don Peck's piece for The Atlantic on the psychological impact of joblessness. After considering the full scope of evidence, Peck declares:

We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could stain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come.

The conclusion sounds extreme, but after reading the piece I almost felt it was understated. In study after study over the years, behavioral scientists have found that losing a job has a wildly deleterious effect on the human mind. Sociologist Krysia Mossakowski, for instance, recently linked unemployment status with depressive symptoms in people age 29 to 37, and she has made connections with heavy drinking too. Similar work by British behavio(u)ral scientist Andrew Oswald, writes Peck, suggests that

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no other circumstance produces a larger decline in mental health and well-being than being involuntarily out of work for six months or more.

What's interesting about these discoveries—particularly, I suspect, to Americans—is that loss of income explains only a very small part of this misery. In a 1998 paper in Economica, economists Liliana and Rainer Winkelmann studied why unemployed people were unhappy and concluded that the "non-pecuniary" effects of joblessness far outweighed those caused by loss of income.

The rest of the explanation, as The Headcase writes in a piece for the Los Angeles Times today, "has something to do with the deep connection people forge between themselves and their work":

In several recent studies, social scientists have zeroed in on why paychecks alone can't explain the link between work and well-being. The evidence shows that people can find meaning in seemingly insignificant jobs and that even trivial tasks make us far happier than no tasks at all.

"We become very dedicated to things it would be hard to be dedicated to if we were perfectly rational," says behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, author of "The Upside of Irrationality," published in June. "It turns out you can give people lots of meaning in lots of ways, even small ones."

The article grew out of several recent studies that, all told, offer an intriguing look at what motivates people to work. (Not to mention an intriguing look at the scientific usefulness of Legos.) New research suggests that people actively want to be busy, that their unhappy when they're idle, and that we're remarkably good at assigning some greater meaning to our busyness—even when our tasks fall far from the altruistic branches of health services, teaching, and the like.

As Ariely told me, he looks at the question as an equation: On the left side is the effort and thought we put into work, and on the right side is what we get out of it. "There are more and more things on right side of the equation" aside from salary, he told me, "that we haven't realized are important."

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Follow me on twitter: e_jaffe

Science writer Eric Jaffe has covered behavior for several years and is working on a book about psychiatry during World War II.

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