Why capitalism is good for your health

The economist John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, famously predicted that by 2030 most individuals would be working no more than 15 hours a week. He thought most human wants and needs would be satisfied, work was mainly a drag and people would be seeking more leisure time. But he underestimated the pull of more money and the pleasures of work. He overestimated the value of leisure — at least for the American public.

If we consider weekly work hours per American, that number rose from 22.34 in 1950 to 23.94 in 2000, hardly a sign of work falling out of fashion. Over this period, too, large numbers of women came into the workforce, many because they wanted to work and earn their own incomes. The reality is that preferences for work haven’t declined nearly as much as commentators had been predicting earlier in the 20th century. Earning and spending money is fun, and many jobs are more rewarding, more social and safer than they used to be. Even with much higher living standards now than in the immediate postwar era, Americans still basically want to stay on the job.

The data on stress also puts work in a pretty favorable light. A study by Sarah Damaske, Joshua M. Smyth and Matthew J. Zawadzki asked 122 adults in a midsize American city in the Northeast to swab their cheeks six times a day to measure their levels of cortisol, a hormonal marker of stress levels. Those measurements were to be taken both at work and at home. The results were pretty clear: A majority of these individuals seemed to experience higher levels of stress at home than at work.

Furthermore, women were more likely to report feeling happier at work, quite possibly because so many women are responsible for child care. (That said, the likelihood of experiencing lower stress at work actually was greater for individuals who did not have children at home, so perhaps in many cases the spouse was the bigger problem.)

Another surprising feature of these results is that the “work as a safe haven” effect was stronger for poorer people. We don’t know if that is true more generally across larger samples of people, but it points to a potentially neglected and egalitarian feature of life in the workplace. In contemporary American society, poorer individuals are more likely to have problems with divorce, spousal abuse, drug addiction in the family, children dropping out of school and a variety of other fairly common social problems. These problems plague rich and poor alike, but they are more frequent in poorer families and, furthermore, very often wreak greater devastation on poorer families, which have fewer resources to cope with them.

At least in this sample, the poorer individuals found relatively greater solace in the workplace than did the richer individuals. The poorer individuals, of course, were paid less at work. But in terms of psychological stresses, a lot of corporations are creating “safe spaces” for individuals who otherwise are facing some pretty seriously bad situations.

Another way to consider the pleasurable nature of a lot of work activity is to measure how much work time is associated with a feeling of “flow.” The flow concept, which has been developed and promoted by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to an integrated, dynamic feeling resulting from processing stimuli, responding to changes in a developing situation and solving problems with some measure of success. Think of those times when you are playing tennis well, cracking that programming problem or delivering that perfect presentation at work. It seems as if your whole mind (and sometimes body too) is being brought to bear on something that really matters, and then you ace it. Doesn’t it feel great?

The data show that work tends to promote a state of flow. One study looked at workers from five large companies in Chicago. About 27 percent of these individuals had management and engineering jobs, 29 percent had clerical jobs and 44 percent had assembly-line jobs (so the study was not primarily of top-of-the-line CEOs); 37 percent of the sample were male, and 75 percent were white. The respondents carried beeping devices and seven times a day they were asked to provide short reports on the challenges and skills of the activities they were engaged in, including the quality of their experiences. These same individuals also were asked to report on their leisure activities.

The results were pretty positive toward work. First, the individuals spent more time in the flow state while they were working than when they were doing leisure activities. A lot of leisure activities, such as reading, talking and watching TV, did not seem conducive to the mental flow state.

A second study, by Csikszentmihalyi himself (co-authored with Judith LeFevre), concluded that “the great majority of flow experiences are reported while working, not when in leisure.”

Upon reflection, it should not come as a shock that work makes so many of us feel happy, satisfied or just less stressed. For one thing, work often provides a significant amount of social validation. At home the number of possible appreciators is fairly small, although they are important validators (“Daddy, you’re a great teacher”). That said, the spouse and children and extended family are not always and in every way entirely grateful. In fact, arguments over household chores are pretty common, and often those who work — especially women — have to emphasize to other family members how much they have already contributed outside the home. Work in some ways offers more approbation.

The number of appreciators at work varies with the job, but many Americans work with dozens or even hundreds of people, and they may have contact with a large number of customers or suppliers from outside their immediate business. Some jobs, such as those in journalism, the arts and politics, raise the possibility of having many thousands or perhaps even millions of potential appreciators.

Work also can be satisfying because you’re paid to do it.

Yes, you’re paid because it isn’t always fun and also because employers need to be sure you’ll show up when scheduled, if only for purposes of coordination. Still, a lot of people very much enjoy the notion that their efforts are worth money to the broader world. Some of that may be greed or an uncomfortable kind of egomania, but a lot of it is a very healthy desire for reward and recognition, and the points system created by money is an important one. The pay validates the work, and the work in turns validates the pay.

That can be a fun virtuous circle, and it is corporations that are the ultimate creators and source of that pleasure. If there is one thing we should have learned from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, it is that Americans want jobs.

Trump’s rhetoric was directed toward jobs, jobs, jobs, and he didn’t talk much at all about redistribution or welfare. Nor did he talk much about “the economy” or “inequality.” As the economist Mike Konczal (a Trump opponent) put it: “Trump talked about jobs. All the time.”

Whatever you may think of President Trump, Middle America responded to this rhetoric because deep down most people know that having a decent job is a major source of happiness, satisfaction and social standing.

Work provides us with a tangible sense of progress, of improving. Each time we get raises and bonuses, promotions and moves into better offices, to more successful companies and into positions of greater social visibility, we receive external validation for our labors. And at times when we’re not moving up, we have something to aspire to.

Even in a slow-growing economy, individuals typically get raises and promotions throughout the course of their work life, at least typically up through some point in their 50s (depending on the nature of the profession — mathematicians and basketball players tend to experience age-related frustration and retrogression before novelists, caregivers and philosophers).

Work also provides people with access to human relationships. You have the opportunity to interact with other intelligent human beings in a fairly structured environment, and those individuals typically share a common mission with you.

That creates opportunities for a lot of meaningful human interaction, camaraderie and sometimes a healthy sense of competition against other companies or a healthy sense of mission against some significant social problem, such as working in an ICU to patch up gunshot wounds or working for a charity to help feed the homeless.

More than half of American workers reported having very good friends on the job.

So companies are actually responsible for some of our most important relationships.

Further, they produce different kinds of relationships than we tend to find in other parts of life. For the norms of work set boundaries on the kinds of interactions deemed acceptable there.

For instance, your work colleagues are not supposed to get too angry at you in public, they are not supposed to cry and they are not supposed to burden you with all of their deepest or darkest desires, demanding that you clear up the mysteries of the universe for them. To be sure, a great number of workplace relationships do cross over these boundaries, sometimes in rather extreme or unsettling ways.

Still, on the whole, workplace constraints hold, and for the better. That offers us the graceful option of a lot of human relationships based on fun and cooperation, with many of the emotional stresses minimized or left at home. Sometimes the work relationship acquires a depth of its own, based on shared interests and appreciation, precisely because it is insulated from some of the more corrosive emotional stresses of life.

A majority of these individuals seemed to experience higher levels of stress at home than at work.

Pay and prestige aside, work also can be an important vehicle for helping others. Let’s say you wish to be a great benefactor of humankind. It is really hard to do this without using the vehicle of work. One path is to earn millions or billions and give it away. More typically, people choose jobs that help other people: being a brain surgeon, doing medical research, being a fireman, teaching kindergarten, running and financing a suicide help line, providing good advice to the government or being a first-rate president of the United States, among many other options. Work is one of the main vehicles for our altruism, and unlike altruism within the family, when things go well it can help many hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.

This connection between work and altruism isn’t just an accident. Many employers go out of their way to make their companies sources of worker dignity and satisfaction, most of all because workers and potential workers, especially among the relatively young, value such things. The more a company is viewed positively, the easier it is to recruit talented workers.

Another way to think about the non-pay-related benefits of having a job is to consider the well-known and indeed sky-high personal costs of unemployment. Not having a job when you want to be working damages happiness and health well beyond what the lost income alone would account for. For instance, the unemployed are more likely to have mental health problems and are more likely to commit suicide. In the well-known study by economists Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, involuntary unemployment is worse for individual happiness than divorce or separation.

In short, productive work is one of the most fulfilling sides of our lives. It makes us happier, better adjusted and better connected to the social world. It gives balance to our home lives. It helps us realize who we are as human beings. This is one of the subtler ways in which capitalism is a creator — namely, a creator of our better selves.

Excerpted from “BIG BUSINESS: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero” by Tyler Cowen. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

LABOR GAINS: How Americans are workin’ it

51% of US workers said they were satisfied with their jobs in 2017, the highest level since 2005
Source: The Conference Board (2018)

58% of those with household income above $75,000 say they’re satisfied at work, compared with around 45% of households making less than $75,000
Source: The Conference Board (2018)

18.8% of Americans ages 65 and older, or nearly 9 million people, reported being employed full- or part-time, the greatest percentage since data has been recorded
Source: Pew (2016)

$46,800 The approximate yearly income of the average American in 2018, a 5% increase on 2017
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

3.8% US unemployment rate in March 2019
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

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