Americans work some of the longest hours in the Western world, and many struggle to achieve a healthy balance between work and life. As a result, there is an understandable tendency to assume that the problem we face is one of quantity: We simply do not have enough free time.
"If I could just get a few more hours off work each week," you might think, "I would be happier." This may be true. But the situation, I believe, is more complicated than that. As I discovered in a study that I published with my colleague Chaeyoon Lim in the journal Sociological Science, it's not just that we have a shortage of free time; it's also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones.
We face a problem, in other words, of coordination. Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.
Our study, which drew on data from more than 500,000 respondents to the Gallup Daily Poll, examined the day-to-day fluctuations and patterns in people's emotions, week after week. Two facts about emotional well-being emerged - one that was intuitive, the other surprising.
The intuitive finding was that people's feelings of well-being closely tracked the workweek. As measured by things such as anxiety, stress, laughter and enjoyment, our well-being is lowest Monday through Thursday. The workweek is a slog. Well-being edges up on Friday, and really peaks on Saturday and Sunday. We are, in a real sense, living for the weekend.
The intuitive finding was that people's feelings of well-being closely tracked the workweek. As measured by things such as anxiety, stress, laughter and enjoyment, our well-being is lowest Monday through Thursday. The workweek is a slog. Well-being edges up on Friday, and really peaks on Saturday and Sunday. We are, in a real sense, living for the weekend. The surprising finding was that this is also true of unemployed people.
The surprising finding was that this is also true of unemployed people. We found that the jobless showed almost exactly the same day-to-day pattern in emotional well-being as working people did. Their positive emotions soared on the weekend, and dropped back down again on Monday.
It seems obvious why working people cherish the weekend: It's a respite from work. But why is the weekend also so important to the unemployed?
The key to answering this question is to recognise that not all time is equal. Time is, in many ways, what sociologists call a "network good".
Network goods are things that derive their value from being widely shared. Take your computer: Its value depends in large measure on how many other people also have a computer. This is because you use your computer as, among other things, a communication technology: for Internet access, e-mail, Facebook and file sharing. When everyone you know has a computer, the technology is indispensable. But if you were the only person with a computer, its value would be limited.
Free time is also a network good. The weekend derives much of its importance from the fact that so many people are off work together.
To help demonstrate this, my colleague and I conducted a second study, this time using the American Time Use Survey, which tracks how much time people spend doing various activities. We found that the weekly cycle in well-being from our previous study was mirrored in the pattern of time that people spent with family and friends - which was roughly double on weekends what it was during the week. According to our calculations, this increase of social time on the weekend accounted for roughly half the spike in weekend well-being.
Again, this was the same for the jobless. Monday to Friday offers five days when the unemployed are off work by themselves, searching job ads, doing household chores and so on. While the jobless have "free time" during the week, their friends and family still have to go to work. The weekend is when the jobless fall back into sync with society.
The weekend, then, is not just a respite from work, but also gives similar relief from unemployment. It is a time when people can get what they've been missing: time together.
This conclusion points to a key feature of the work-life problem: You cannot get more "weekend" simply by taking an extra day off work yourself. If we were to take more time off as individuals, we would be likely to spend that time, as the jobless do, waiting for other people to finish work. We are stuck "at work", in a sense, by the work schedules of our family and friends.
Over the past few years, many workplaces have looked for ways to create more flexibility in individual work schedules. There is no question that doing so has many benefits. But my research suggests that a disadvantage of these efforts is that they may lead us even further from a weekend-like system of coordinated social time. They threaten, ultimately, to exacerbate the decline in civic engagement and social contact known as the "bowling alone" problem.
The solution might be found in a form of constraint: more standardisation of the time for work and the time for life.
NEW YORK TIMES
- The writer is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University.