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The High Cost of Overfocusing on Work

A shift in focus can deliver a powerful next-day boost.

Key points

  • New research found that prioritizing achievement over freedom is associated with unhappiness.
  • Important correlations were found between value fulfillment and life satisfaction.
  • Participants who spent time engaging with hobbies also saw a significant well-being boost.

It's no surprise that people stuck in a cycle of overwork tend to not necessarily be the happiest folks around. But recent research shows that on a daily level, prioritizing achievement over freedom is associated with unhappiness.

New research led by Paul Hanel at the University of Bath set out to explore potential differences in happiness levels among people who prioritized achievement versus enjoyment. Nearly 200 people, across three countries—India, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—were followed for nine days, where assessments were taken of their values, their satisfaction with life, positive and negative affect, depression, anxiety, stress, daily value fulfillment, and daily well-being.

Overall, important correlations were found between value fulfillment and life satisfaction. This likely doesn't come as a surprise; when people feel they are living in accordance with their values, it makes sense that they may feel more satisfied with their lives. And in turn, people who are more satisfied with their lives may have an easier time being motivated to live more authentically in accordance with their values.

What was more striking, though, is that acting in accordance with one's values on a given day actually predicted feeling a higher level of well-being the next day. And, most importantly, the types of values mattered. People who prioritized achievement over everything else on a given day did not have as high of happiness levels the next day as compared to those who prioritized values such as hedonism and self-direction. Prioritizing conformity was associated with a similarly lower level of well-being the next day. Those who prioritized freedom, however, had a 13 percent boost in well-being, better sleep quality, and higher life satisfaction.

And participants who spent time engaging with hobbies also saw a significant well-being boost, and a corresponding drop in stress and anxiety.

Of course, some might scoff at this research, because the word "hedonism" alone is not always good. We clearly can't spend every day seeking pleasure, or it might take us even farther away from a sense of purpose. And the vast majority of us need to work, and in fact might have very meaningful jobs that reflect our values even more than our leisure time does.

Nonetheless, when we think about prioritizing achievement for achievement's sake, it seems intuitive that that is not as inherently fulfilling as doing things throughout our days that have value within the activity themselves, rather than just the goalpost we are reaching when we do them. It may very well be that people who work because of what they think it represents may not be helping their well-being as much as those who spend time on hobbies simply because it brings them joy.

That elusive balance between work and leisure—between pleasure and toil—can be hard for most of us to find. But perhaps the next time we wonder about how to spend an extra hour of our day, it might be helpful to think about what our values are—whether they allow for freedom and joy and self-direction—and how we might act in accordance with them in a way that isn't just about achievement.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Perfect Angle Images/Shutterstock


Paul H. P. Hanel, Hamdullah Tunç, Divija Bhasin, Lukas F. Litzellachner, Gregory R. Maio. Value fulfillment and well‐being: Clarifying directions over time. Journal of Personality, 2023; DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12869

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