“What are the applied implications of our findings? In the work area we suggest that a balance between hours of work, social time and leisure will produce the highest well-being, whereas even work that is enjoyable will produce less well-being if carried out for too many hours. Conversely, it would be an error to assume that people would be happiest if all their time were spent in pleasurable leisure activities. ... At the policy level an implication is that too many work hours, without sufficient free time or vacation, will prove less rewarding for most people” (Diener, Weiting Ng and Will Tov, 2008, ‘Balance in life and declining marginal utility of diverse resources’, Applied Research Quality Life).
This quote is from the conclusions of an article which assesses how average happiness levels differ with differing amounts of time spent in various ways (free time, with family and friends, and commuting) as well as with income levels. The findings seem to confirm the predictions of standard economic thinking in this area i.e. as our consumption of any good (including non-market goods such as leisure) rises the marginal utility of adding an additional unit of the good tends to decline.
What does the article tell us about marginal utility? The part of the study that seems most informative uses data from the Gallup World Poll, a representative sample of people almost covering about 95 percent of the world. As its main measure of happiness the study uses affect balance, which measures relative experience of positive feelings (enjoyment, and smiling and laughing) and negative feelings (depression, anger, sadness and worry) for the previous day.
The results suggest that the marginal utility of “free time” and “time with family and friends” is quite high for the first few hours of each activity (in the time category zero to four hours) and then declines to around zero. The marginal utility of additional income rises steeply for incomes up to around $US 40, 000 and then increases moderately, if at all. (The ladder of life indicator shows a similar pattern, but with the marginal utility of income remaining positive at high income levels).
How much additional income would a person need to earn to compensate for the loss of utility associated with the sacrifice of an hour of free time or an hour with family or friends. My rough calculation suggests that the hourly rate of pay required would be around $28 for a person with an income of around $20, 000 per year. (The loss in utility for sacrifice of an hour of leisure equals 0.075. Income on the preceding day would have needed to rise by $28 in order to raise utility by 0.075.)
For people with higher incomes, the hourly wage rate needed to compensate for the loss of an hour of leisure time would be very much higher. At first sight it might appear that with incomes in excess of around $60,000 the hourly rate of pay required to compensate for sacrifice of an hour of leisure would be huge. We need to remember, however, that some of the people earning this additional income might be saving it to spend at times of their lives when their earning capacity is diminished and the marginal utility of additional income is much higher. There are also some people who enjoy their work so much that they would not require any compensation for sacrificing an hour of free time. More research is required before we will have a good understanding of why people make the choices they make between income and leisure.
The quote at the beginning of this article suggests that the choice that individuals make between income and leisure is a government policy issue. Why should it be? The weight of evidence suggests that when governments attempt to regulate how people live their lives they tend to make people more miserable rather than happier. As I see it, the main benefit of research of this kind is that the findings may help individuals to improve their own well-being and that of their families by enabling them to make better choices.