Even A Little Paid Work Makes You Happy

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Over the weekend, I saw a local news piece on how the “average person needs only eight hours of work per week to be happy”. The source was a paper in the Social Science and Medicine journal titled A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being? The study used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which tracked over 70,000 people living in the UK aged between 16 and 64 across the last decade (2009–2018). Per the abstract, here are the two major questions posed.

Q: What is the minimum amount of paid employment needed to deliver some or all of the well-being and mental health benefits that employment has been shown to bring?

A: 8 hours is sufficient. When going from unemployed/stay-at-home-parent/injured/disabled to working up to 8 hours a week, there was a significant increase in mental wellbeing. ScienceDaily stated that self-reported life satisfaction in men increased by around 30% with up to eight hours of paid work, although women didn’t see a similar jump until working 20 hours.

Q: What is the optimum number of working hours at which the mental health of workers is at its highest?

A: There was no single optimum number. There was basically no improvement (or deterioration) in mental wellbeing for working additional hours, up to 48 hours per week.

The authors claim that these findings support shorter work-week policies, while the local newspeople didn’t really think of much of that – “Yeah, well, I’d like to only work 8 hours a week too, but that’s not going to happen…”

My main takeaway is that having some form of paid work, however small, improves mental wellbeing. This can be an important lesson for retirees, those seeking financial independence, and even those who are stay-at-home parents. If you know that you actually want to work a certain amount, that can change your early retirement numbers. You might plan to work fewer hours per week for more years.

It’s true that not all jobs are good fits with part-time work, but I think finding something that does fit that could (should?) be part of the retirement planning process. A medical professional like a nurse has a lot of part-time options, an experienced accountant can line up a job helping out during the busy tax season, an engineer can grow a network of contacts that can supply limited-time consulting gigs, and so on.

This also aligns with my personal experience. After my wife and I found out we were able to have kids, we had to figure out how to balance childcare duties. Long story short, it turns out that neither of us wanted to be full-time stay-at-home parents. (We also didn’t want to go with full-time daycare and were fortunate to be able to make that happen financially.) Now, instead of one person being full-time employed and one person being stay-at-home, we both work part-time and that makes us both happier!

If you look closely at a lot of “retired” people, a lot of them still take on paid work. I think this is one of those things that I would put on a list of “Top 10 Secrets of Early Retirees.” Even if you no longer have to work to make your mortgage payment, it still feels good to add some purpose to your day and to be perfectly honest, get paid money!

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  1. I have been off work since March 5 and not starting again until Sept 3. So it was a taste of what retirement will be like. I enjoyed not having to be anywhere and also not having to figure out what to wear each day. But truth be told, I started to get a bit bored and a bit lonely. I live in an area where there is not a whole lot going on. If I were more project-oriented, I might be content to do projects. But I am not. Lesson learned: I will need to figure out how to find meaningful activities once retired (which I am planning to be by March 2020). Don’t need income but need something to do that gets me out of the house and around people!

  2. The ScienceDaily article doesn’t seem to address if volunteer work confers the same benefits (or if it truly has to be paid work). I suspect volunteer work would be similarly beneficial, but that is just my intuition.

  3. I loved the title so I had to read this post. I retired slightly early three years ago and designed some consulting side gigs that usually have me working about one day a week, sometimes two but usually just about eight hours. They are extremely profitable but I do not need the money, just the challenge, socializing, travel and networking that the work provides. I personally have felt that somewhere around eight to twelve hours of paid work was plenty to keep me feeling productive and to augment the volunteer unpaid work I also do. Very interesting that science backs this up. As to commenter Eric B., I do not find the volunteer work I do to “feel” like the paid work. I do it because it is needed and I’m good at it but unlike the paid work I do not particularly enjoy the volunteer work.

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