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Work-life balance: what really makes us happy might surprise you

Black Salmon/Shutterstock
Lis Ku, De Montfort University

Finding the right work-life balance is by no means a new issue in our society. But the tension between the two has been heightened by the pandemic, with workers increasingly dwelling over the nature of their work, its meaning and purpose, and how these affect their quality of life.

You can listen to more articles from The Conversation, narrated by Noa, here.

Studies suggest people are leaving or planning to leave their employers in record numbers in 2021 – a “great resignation” that appears to have been precipitated by these reflections. But if we’re all reconsidering where and how work slots into our lives, what should we be aiming at?

It’s easy to believe that if only we didn’t need to work, or we could work far fewer hours, we’d be happier, living a life of hedonic experiences in all their healthy and unhealthy forms. But this fails to explain why some retirees pick up freelance jobs and some lottery winners go straight back to work.

Striking the perfect work-life balance, if there is such a thing, isn’t necessarily about tinkering with when, where and how we work – it’s a question of why we work. And that means understanding sources of happiness that might not be so obvious to us, but which have crept into view over the course of the pandemic.

Attempts to find a better work-life balance are well merited. Work is consistently and positively related to our wellbeing and constitutes a large part of our identity. Ask yourself who you are, and very soon you’ll resort to describing what you do for work.

Our jobs can provide us with a sense of competence, which contributes to wellbeing. Researchers have demonstrated not only that labour leads to validation but that, when these feelings are threatened, we’re particularly drawn to activities that require effort – often some form of work – because these demonstrate our ability to shape our environment, confirming our identities as competent individuals.

Work even seems to makes us happier in circumstances when we’d rather opt for leisure. This was demonstrated by a series of clever experiments in which participants had the option to be idle (waiting in a room for 15 minutes for an experiment to start) or to be busy (walking for 15 minutes to another venue to participate in an experiment). Very few participants chose to be busy, unless they were forced to make the walk, or given a reason to (being told there was chocolate at the other venue).

Yet the researchers found that those who’d spent 15 minutes walking ended up significantly happier than those who’d spent 15 minutes waiting – no matter whether they’d had a choice or a chocolate or neither. In other words, busyness contributes to happiness even when you think you’d prefer to be idle. Animals seem to get this instinctively: in experiments, most would rather work for food than get it for free.

Eudaimonic happiness

The idea that work, or putting effort into tasks, contributes to our general wellbeing is closely related to the psychological concept of eudaimonic happiness. This is the sort of happiness that we derive from optimal functioning and realising our potential. Research has shown that work and effort is central to eudaimonic happiness, explaining that satisfaction and pride you feel on completing a gruelling task.

A man stressed at a desk
Completing stressful tasks gives us a unique and valuable form of happiness.

On the other side of the work-life balance stands hedonic happiness, which is defined as the presence of positive feelings such as cheerfulness and the relative scarcity of negative feelings such as sadness or anger. We know that hedonic happiness offers empirical mental and physical health benefits, and that leisure is a great way to pursue hedonic happiness.

But even in the realm of leisure, our unconscious orientation towards busyness lurks in the background. A recent study has suggested that there really is such a thing as too much free time – and that our subjective wellbeing actually begins to drop if we have more than five hours of it in a day. Whiling away effortless days on the beach doesn’t seem to be the key to long-term happiness.

This might explain why some people prefer to expend significant effort during their leisure time. Researchers have likened this to compiling an experiential CV, sampling unique but potentially unpleasant or even painful experiences – at the extremes, this might be spending a night in an ice hotel, or joining an endurance desert race. People who take part in these forms of “leisure” typically talk about fulfilling personal goals, making progress and accumulating accomplishments – all features of eudaimonic happiness, not the hedonism we associate with leisure.

The real balance

This orientation sits well with a new concept in the field of wellbeing studies: that a rich and diverse experiential happiness is the third component of a “good life”, in addition to hedonic and eudaimonic happiness.

Across nine countries and tens of thousands of participants, researchers recently found that most people (over 50% in each country) would still prefer a happy life typified by hedonic happiness. But around a quarter prefer a meaningful life embodied by eudaimonic happiness, and a small but nevertheless significant amount of people (about 10-15% in each country) choose to pursue a rich and diverse experiential life.

Given these different approaches to life, perhaps the key to long-lasting wellbeing is to consider which lifestyle suits you best: hedonic, eudaimonic or experiential. Rather than pitching work against life, the real balance to strike post-pandemic is between these three sources of happiness.The Conversation

Lis Ku, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 How little we know about the dangers.

We can discover, “Like,” click on, and share information faster than ever before, guided by algorithms most of us don’t quite understand.

Some social scientists, journalists, and activists have been raising concerns about how this is affecting our democracy, mental health, and relationships, we haven’t seen biologists and ecologists weighing in as much.

That’s changed with a new paper published in the prestigious science journal PNAS earlier this month, titled “Stewardship of global collective behavior.

Seventeen researchers who specialize in widely different fields, from climate science to philosophy, make the case that academics should treat the study of technology’s large-scale impact on society as a “crisis discipline.”

The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”

Human collective dynamics are critical to the wellbeing of people and ecosystems in the present and will set the stage for how we face global challenges with impacts that will last centuries .There is no reason to suppose natural selection will have endowed us with dynamics that are intrinsically conducive to human wellbeing or sustainability. The same is true of communication technology, which has largely been developed to solve the needs of individuals or single organizations. Such technology, combined with human population growth, has created a global social network that is larger, denser, and able to transmit higher-fidelity information at greater speed. With the rise of the digital age, this social network is increasingly coupled to algorithms that create unprecedented feedback effects.

Insight from across academic disciplines demonstrates that past and present changes to our social networks will have functional consequences across scales of organization. Given that the impacts of communication technology will transcend disciplinary lines, the scientific response must do so as well. Unsafe adoption of technology has the potential to both threaten wellbeing in the present and have lasting consequences for sustainability. Mitigating risk to ourselves and posterity requires a consolidated, crisis-focused study of human collective behavior.

Collective behavior provides a framework for understanding how the actions and properties of groups emerge from the way individuals generate and share information. In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies. Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises. We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have, with a focus on providing actionable insight to policymakers and regulators for the stewardship of social systems.

  1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.
  2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.
  3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.
  4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.
  5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.
  6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.
  7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.
  8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.
  9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.
  10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgment required of him that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.
What could possibly motivate these doctors, nurses, scientists, and other health professionals to make such an impassioned plea? What do they have to gain by taking the time to educate the public on the hidden dangers of a new class of vaccine about to be inflicted upon the citizens of countries around the world?

COVID-19 will probably become endemic – here's what that means

Hans Heesterbeek, Utrecht University

We can’t say with any certainty what the future of COVID-19 is. But based on our experience with other infections, there is little reason to believe that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 will go away any time soon, even when vaccines become available. A more realistic scenario is that it will be added to the (large and growing) family of infectious diseases that are what is known as “endemic” in the human population.

With the worldwide spread of the disease increasing again, it seems unlikely that the currently available measures can do more than bring that spread under control – except in countries that can effectively isolate themselves from the outside world. The fact that the vast majority of people are still susceptible to some degree means that there is sufficient fuel for the fire to keep burning for quite some time.

This will be the case even if specific locations reach what is known as population (or herd) immunity (and it’s not clear how likely this is to happen). When a sufficient number of people become immune to a disease, either through vaccination or natural infection, its spread starts to slow down and the number of cases gradually decreases. But that doesn’t mean it will disappear instantly or completely.

Outside any areas with population immunity, there are likely to be plenty of locations that still have enough susceptible individuals to keep transmission going. No measure of isolation is so strong that it will completely stop human interaction between regions, within and between countries, or globally.

It’s also possible that the spread of an infection will eventually stabilise at a constant level so that it becomes present in communities at all times, possibly at a relatively low, sometimes predictable rate. This is what we mean when we say a disease is endemic.

Some infections are present and actively spreading almost everywhere (such as many sexually transmitted infections and childhood infections). But most infections are endemic in specific parts of the world.

This can occur when effective control has eliminated the infection elsewhere, or because the conditions needed for effective transmission can only be found in specific locations. This is the case for malaria and many other infections transmitted by mosquitoes.

Silhouette of mosquito on human skin.
Malaria is endemic in many countries. Mycteria/Shutterstock

Theoretically speaking, an infection becomes endemic if on average each infected individual transmits it to one other person. In other words, when the reproduction number (R) = 1. In comparison, during an epidemic when the spread of the disease is increasing, R is more than 1, and when the spread is decreasing through control measures or population immunity, R is less than 1.

In practice, there are a number of patterns that can be observed in endemic diseases. Some can exist at low levels throughout the year, while others might show periods of higher transmission interspersed with periods of low transmission. This might happen if seasonal factors influence how much contact people have with one another, how susceptible they are to the disease, or other organisms that spread it such as insects.

As long as there is a sufficient supply of people still susceptible to the disease for each infected person to pass it on to, it will continue to spread. This supply can be replenished in various ways, depending on the characteristics of the disease.

Waning immunity

In diseases that give permanent immunity after infection, each new child born is susceptible after the immunity obtained from the mother wears off. This is why childhood infections such as measles are endemic in many parts of the world where the birth rate is high enough.

In diseases that only give temporary immunity through natural infection, people lose that immune protection to become susceptible again. A virus or bacteria can also evade the immune memory by mutation so that people with immunity to an older strain will become susceptible to the new version of the disease. Influenza is a prime example.

We don’t yet know how long immunity from infection from COVID-19 will last, or how good vaccines will be at protecting people. But other coronaviruses that are endemic in the human population, such as those that cause colds, only confer temporary immunity of about one year.

Another important point is that people with immunity, whether from infection or vaccination, are rarely evenly distributed throughout a community or country, let alone the world. Certainly in the case of COVID-19, there are areas where the infection has spread more intensively and areas that have been relatively spared. Without even distribution, there is no population immunity even if enough people have been vaccinated to meet the predicted necessary threshold.

In these cases, the average R can be low enough that the infection is under control, but in the unprotected pockets it will be well above 1. This leads to localised outbreaks and allows the disease to remain endemic. It continues to spread from place to place, seeded by a few locations where population density and interaction are high enough, and protection low enough, to sustain transmission.

How we respond

How we deal with COVID-19 once it becomes endemic will depend on how good our vaccines and treatments are. If they can protect people from the most severe outcomes, the infection will become manageable. COVID-19 will then be like several other diseases that we have learned to live with and many people will experience during their lives.

Depending on whether immunity – either from natural infection or from vaccination – is permanent or temporary, we may need yearly vaccine updates to protect us (like influenza). Or it could be controlled by vaccination at some optimal age (like many childhood infections).

If vaccines not only prevent clinical disease but also strongly reduce transmission and confer long-lasting immunity, we can envisage other scenarios, such as the potential eradication of the disease. But realistically this is unlikely. Eradication is notoriously difficult, even for diseases for which we have almost perfect vaccines and permanent immunity. Endemic disease is therefore the most likely outcome.The Conversation

Hans Heesterbeek, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology, Utrecht University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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