The Decision Tree

Decision-making from all perspectives

Do we need work to be happy?

A Utopian future without work might bore us to death.

 Here's a tiny little slice of intellectual life that interests me and (as far as I know) no one else. It lies at the intersection of literature and economic theory. 

The late 19th and early 20th century are full of Utopian novels that lay out a bold new future in which mechanization reduces the need for labor, and gives us a ton of free time.  But these speculative novels fail to satisfyingly answer one major question: what do people do with all their free time? 

Looking at some of the classics, I see that many utopians fantasized that we would spend all our time on art projects, on conversation, on meaningful hobbies, on quiet contemplation, and on slow walks through nature. But in general, they did not dwell on the details very much. They left that to the reader's imagination.

I think this decision is in response to a literary problem, which is that interesting writing thrives on conflict and utopias by definition have no conflict. 

I suspect it sounded boring to the audiences of the books too. 

In the Utopian novels that I have read, the characters spend a lot of time either fighting for the utopia, fighting to get there, or, once there, go on a guided tour of the place, where the audience stand-in sees the gears move, and the author gets to drool over the exact way in which newfangled machines will save labor. 

But the actual living of life in the utopian world is dealt with quickly, and parenthetically probably because it's tedious and boring. 

And not just in a literary sense either. It's probably actually really boring to live that way.

After all, let's pause for a second and remember that in a lot of ways the utopians were 100% correct. We DO live in a future where people don't really have to do backbreaking labor very hard to get enough food to eat. (At least in the USA) only a small number of us are farmers, and they have machine to do the hardest stuff. Most of the rest of us can get away with very little physical labor. If we want to eat as well as a typical 19th century farmer does, we could eat rice and beans every night - a very healthy and cheap diet on part-time work. And spent the rest of the time having fun.

And some people do that. A group of people known as ski bums spends the winter skiing and the summer working to earn enough money to spend the next winter skiing. 

But most of us don't choose that lifestyle or something equivalent. We give ourselves 2-4 weeks of vacation and instead of working less (or negotiating for more vacation time) we work the same amount. 

Surely part of this is social pressure. But I think a lot of it is that the literary problem - showing people not working is boring - is a human nature problem: most people find not working pretty boring. 

We need stakes. We thrive on conflict. We need to constantly overcome obstacles to be happy. 

 

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

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