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Primal downer: overwork

Our ancestors “worked” just 4-5 hours each day to hunt and gather food, care for children, make clothes and food implements and do the other tasks necessary for survival. The rest of the time they played — one scholar claims the ancestral lifestyle was mostly that. They danced, sang, played games and musical instruments, told stories and socialized.

So our hominid line evolved for millennia spending less time than he we do today at our jobs. And much less if we add to the time we get paid, the hours spent commuting, dressing for work, training and so on. Add up all that and it is far in excess of the primal norm.

Is that a problem?

Not if we love our jobs. Some lucky people earn money in ways that deeply fulfill them – usually because their vocation delivers lots of the primal experiences we evolved to enjoy, such as helping people (eg doctors or teachers), spending time in nature (eg landscapers and park rangers), or expressing talents (eg creative workers of all types).

But those folks are rare. Most people don’t enjoy their job. Gallop surveys indicate widespread dissatisfaction at the workplace. Large proportions of the population would quit their position if they had another source of income.

One reason is that for even work that we enjoy, the standard eight hour day plus commute and preparation, is too long. We come home exhausted. Commuting is an especially effective drain on our happiness. Most people report it as the least joyful part of their day. Our physical and emotional biology seem designed for only a modest amount of focused output, much less than is normal today. Research indicates that we can perform at peak levels for a maximum of only four hours each day.1 (See References below.) By nature, we need lots of rest to work efficiently.

Another problem is the mental and physical routinization of work. We evolved in a lifestyle of constant shifts in both mental tasks and body movements. For example, foraging involves regular observation and analysis of the changing route to determine the most likely source of food. Our bodies too were constantly moving in different ways as we walked, ran, climbed trees, dug for grubs and wiggled through undergrowth. Such variation is essential for physical health which is a major upper.

But most jobs today deny such innate needs. We tend to perform the same or similar tasks over and over in an unchanging indoor workplace. The assembly line is the best example of the mechanization of work. No surprise that robots are taking over there.

But even more complex jobs are highly repetitive. I discovered that in my ten years working as a lawyer. Like most other attorneys I specialized in a specific field and and while this usually enhances our income, it tends to narrow our focus. Though my clients were interesting entrepreneurs, and many became friends, I soon found their legal issues dull; I did pro bono, public-interest work to find the satisfaction I did not get with highly paid lawyering.

Because our nomadic genes don’t want us to spend hours on end in recurring tasks that require a narrow range of movement, most work is a primal downer, which is why most people don’t like it.

So why do we work so much at unfulfilling jobs? There are a host of reasons. Many people have to work just to provide the basic necessities. As a result of bad luck, poor education, a depressed job market and many other factors, they have few employment options all of which pay poorly. So they take whatever work they can get.

But many others with financial resources still work at unhappy jobs. There are several reasons for their strange choice. The first is simple habit. Once we get into a routine, we tend to stay there, even if it fails to bring much happiness.

Second, many people have adopted out culture’s reverence for work and wealth. Sadly, our culture does not similarly value happiness. You can see that dichotomy in the education system which gives young people technical rather than emotional skills, and in an economic system which promotes growth and increased productivity but mostly ignores emotional wellbeing. Because of such cultural norms, the fact that most jobs are not very satisfying is not widely perceived to be a serious problem.

The best examples of this are the people who work the longest hours today: highly paid professionals. Approximately 90% of professionals work more than fifty hours per week and nearly half of them work in excess of 65 hours a week! Doctors, dentists, and lawyers, who are already more than well-off, could work less but choose to clock exhausting billable hours. But compared to Wall Street bankers, they are slackers. A study found that financial analysts spend up to 120 hours a week on the job. A mini-revolution swept Wall Street recently when the big banks insisted that analysts limit their weekly labors to 75 hours!2 Why do intelligent people inflict such harm on themselves? A former hedge fund manager offers an answer: they are addicted to money in the same way a junkie craves heroin, a smoker a cigarette, and an alcoholic a drink.3

Another reason people overwork is because institutions require it, often for no better reason than it has been the norm for generations. Consider the education of doctors, which (ironically) imposes unhealthy long hours of training. Even though studies show that health care can be just as effective without subjecting interns to such an exhausting regimen, the system persists.4 Excess is institutionalized. A new generation of medical professionals begins their career accepting oppressively long hours as normal. Similarly, employers in the professions and financial sector often regard brutally long hours as an unstated condition of the job, even when overwork is well known to severely undermine productivity.

Consumerism also inspires overwork. People toil in stressful jobs because they want luxuries like big homes, new cars, lots of toys. Powerful institutions encourage such materialism. But as the evidence presented here shows, our genes don’t like having many possessions. Studies show that happiness is highly correlated with time affluence, not accumulating more stuff.5 The best happiness investment for your money is to take some time off work and do things we evolved to enjoy, like spending time with friends or being in nature rather than working at unfulfilling jobs to purchase stuff that leave us feeling empty.

Though most people fall into the trap of unhappy work, many manage to avoid it. I’ve found that most folks in the latter group tend to live in rural areas. I lived in the countryside for ten years and observed the many ways people managed to avoid the work/spend habits that I observed in the city. I won’t discuss their method here (low rural rents and property prices are a big factor) because my point is that people can raise families, send their kids to college, have an intimate relationship with nature and a good sense of community, yet work less than average hours and often take extended vacations.

It is much harder to that in big cities, but some manage it. Like me. I narrowly avoided a career in the rigid confines of a big corporate law factory, choosing instead my own small firm, but even there found the monotony I described above. So I stopped practicing law and used my legal and other skills to start businesses, including book publishing, property sales and storefront retail. I found that small scale entrepreneurism offered constant learning, task flexibility and adequate income to finance my minimalist lifestyle. But most importantly, it afforded me lots of time off to pursue non-monetized passions like traveling through nature, writing books and sex-positive activism.

Unless you are economically trapped, you can avoid the overwork downer. The first step is to want to. My book Joyshift can help you take the next steps.


1 The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, Tony Schwartz, 2010, p.7.

2 “The cult of overwork”, James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, Jan 27, 2014.

3 “For the Love of Money”, Sam Polk, 2014,

4 “The cult of overwork”, James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, Jan 27, 2014.

5 Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, Tal Ben-Shahar, 2007, p.154.

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