Work yourself happy

Categories Culture Theology
This post was published on Thursday 23 September 2021.

Work vs. leisure

I’ve been reading this article this morning, which suggests some counter-intuitive (unless you’ve read Genesis) ideas about work, leisure, and happiness.

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.

I confess I sometimes fall into that trap. ‘If only God had made one day for work and six for leisure,’ I tell myself, ‘Instead of the other way round.’ But as the article goes on to point out:

This fails to explain why some retirees pick up freelance jobs and some lottery winners go straight back to work.

Some clever scientists devised an experiment where participants could choose to either wait in a room for 15 minutes for ‘the experiment’ to start, or walk somewhere else for ‘the experiment’ to start. (Of course, the experiment was the choice they made, not the thing they were waiting for.)

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.

Further experiments on animals show ‘most would rather work for food than get it for free.’ And one recent study suggests that ‘there really is such a thing as too much free time’ - the cut-off appears to be around five hours per day.

Created to work

The reason for all this is that God created human beings to work. The classic verse is Genesis 2.15:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Genesis 2.15 (NIV)

God baked that pattern of working most of the time and resting some of the time into creation itself (e.g. Genesis 2.2-3, Exodus 20.11, 2 Chronicles 36.21). The world was created to work and to have rest, to be fruitful and to recover.

The problem we have is that a) work itself is cursed and made futile as a result of sin (Genesis 3.17-19), and b) our stubborn disobedient hearts mean we don’t rest as we should (e.g. Leviticus 26.35). The solution is not to abandon work and focus on leisure - that would simply compound (b)! The solution is to redeem work.

How do we do that?

Part of it is a mindset. Perhaps it’s easy for me to say - I’m a vicar after all, though even for vicars this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds - but we need to think about how we can serve God in and through whatever it is we do. What that means will vary by circumstances - rather than me try and come up with examples on this blog, why don’t you have a conversation with your Christian friends about how you could make your work (paid or otherwise) more focused on Jesus?

Part of it is obedience: do we follow God’s pattern of work and rest, or do we work and work? I realised recently that my ‘day off’ was often becoming ‘work’ of a different kind - filled with doing all the jobs I didn’t have time for in the other six days of the week because I was, well, working. We need to pay attention to God and to ourselves, which is pretty much impossible when we fill our time with things to do.

I actually think that’s one of the reasons for rest: it isn’t only about giving our bodies a break, but listening. I find it’s in those times when I make myself stop that I hear God’s voice most clearly.

How can you redeem your work, and how can you ensure you make time to rest, to live as God intended?