Pain for Gain? Should work make us unhappy?

Going back my Econ 52 days (Advanced Macro taught by Pete Klenow) – we’d have a standard utility function for people. In summary the function implied that working was painful for humans and that leisure is what we prized – and that we worked at the level when the marginal pain from working was equal to the marginal gain from leisure.

I guess it makes a lot of sense from an econ point of view especially when we are solving equations – but its kinds of sad to think that our job which might consume anywhere from 60-100 hours of our week doesn’t really give us pleasure.

But when you think of people who have found ‘their calling in life.’ Do they also experience marginal pain for each hour worked? Maybe they enjoy the first 30 hours and then they’d rather be doing something else for the next 30. Who knows.

But as a thought experiment, think about having a job that you truly loved doing and were willing to devote yourself to. It could have positive diminishing marginal utility so you would stop working when the last hour worked was as pleasurable as an extra hour relaxing. But wouldn’t that have a serious implication for our general happiness?

Like anything else that gives us pleasure, such work would also have diminishing returns. And you would only stop working when the last hour worked gave you as much pleasure as other things such as working out, eating, sleeping, spending some quality time with your friends etc.

So even if your work made you happy (had a positive but diminishing marginal utility), you’d never work for all 168 hours in a week. But in general that would make you a lot happier over your lifetime than a job which gave you negative marginal utility – but that’s just intuitive.

Any thoughts, criticisms, comments on the topic are welcomed.

This is also another pondering on utility, the first edition is at:


About alalani
I grew up in Tanzania and now I'm a student at Stanford!

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