Monday, July 19, 2004

Happiness is less wealth and more leisure time

This morning the IHT (here) returns to one of my favorite comparisons between Europe and the United States: what is the value of leisure time on either side of the ocean?  
 
Europeans work shorter weeks and typically take two long vacation periods during the year (it is my impression that the summer one often extends upwards of a month). Yes, the reduced work time translates into reduced wages. On the average, Europeans are 30% poorer than their counterparts in the States. But it is a relative deprivation. Consider these points from the IHT article (boldface is mine):   
...This image of a casual West European work ethic tends to be viewed with something just short of scorn among the world's other wealthy economies…

… Is Europe, which has about the shortest workweeks and longest vacations in the world, doomed to lag behind, a victim of its penchant for ever more leisure and an overly generous welfare state?
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One response: If the answer is yes, then so what? 

Rather than a failure to catch up with its more industrious competitors because of faltering productivity growth, Europe's more modest income level mainly reflects a series of policy choices that have tended to put a premium on leisure and equality at the expense of greater wealth.
 
…But for all the bad press the European economy receives, it is so far not performing that poorly. 

…Contrary to conventional wisdom, West European productivity growth actually outpaced that of the United States over the past 30 years… Some countries, including France, now have productivity levels exceeding those in the United States.
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If Europeans are still poorer than their American counterparts, it is because fewer of them hold jobs, and those who do have gradually reduced the time they spend at work … Americans have been much more hesitant to work fewer hours, keeping the tally virtually unchanged over the past 10 years despite strong growth. The result: They [Americans] work 18 percent more hours than Europeans.
 
The Atlantic, it seems, separates two radically different philosophies of life.
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Polls show that Europeans are by and large happy to pay high taxes in return for social services, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the concept of well-being in Europe is less linked to material wealth than it is in America.
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"It's a different mentality," said Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund.
 
…Giuseppe Roma, who conducts society studies at the Rome-based research group Censis, said European shoppers were increasingly turning away from status-quo purchases to spend their money on lifestyle products. The new attitude, he said, is to care about the "real quality of life," meaning, I may not buy Prada, but I will buy organic olive oil.
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…According to surveys conducted by the World Database of Happiness, which is run by Ruut Veenhoven, a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, citizens in many European nations are more satisfied with their lives than Americans and other more hard-working nations, like Japan, where people have been clocking up even more hours than in the United States. More significant, happiness in the United States and Japan has been flat over the past 30 years but has risen in most West European countries.
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…"The main difference with the U.S. is that we spend more time enjoying life," he said.

I go back to this idea over and over again.  When I came to the US as an adult I was stunned to learn that many Americans did not really take a vacation. I remember talking to a friend early on who told me that out of two weeks paid leave time (two weeks??)  she would use one week to catch up with chores around the house; the rest would be spread to lengthen a week-end here and there. This seemed unreal to me.
 
And the guilt! When I hear people bemoan time wasted here, it is always a complaint that runs in the vein of "I didn't get enough work done." Here, the word "procrastination" is thrown around as an admission of sinful behavior whereby one is working less than the amount of waking hours in a day. As friends and colleagues in Europe stretch time spent on the pursuit of leisure, here, "leisure time" appears to be a quaint notion,  associated perhaps with the rich and idle. Sometimes I truly think that in the States, there are only three categories of time: work time, chore time and wasted time.
 
Because we hide our desire to indulge in leisure, it is not a concept that deserves review or open discussion. Thus, rather than having a creative engagement in the structuring of leisure, we snatch hours of it here and there, feeling guilty and doing little to extend it into something truly magnificent.
 
Yes, this article is a reminder to me that not all habits of one's adopted country can easily become one's own. The denigration of leisure time is something that will always feel foreign to me. And I'm happy that this is so.

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