After a lifetime of working as hard as possible and as much as possible, I'm now trying to work as little as possible.

The transition has been much harder than I expected. Like so many others, I feel guilty if I waste time. If I have to wait at the doctor's office, I'll bring work with me. If I walk the dog, I decide that's a great time to get caught up on my podcasts. I'll stay up an extra hour at night to try and get ahead of the next day's tasks.

But those habits I thought were necessary in order to "achieve" success were actually killing me. That's not hyperbole. The long hours and stress of overwork caused me to burn out in 2016. I got very sick and started hearing dire warnings from my doctor: slow down, I was told. Relax. My son said he didn't think I knew how to relax.

So began a three-year research project into the causes of modern burnout and the possible solutions.

I discovered that my obsession with work was not unique to me but a common issue all around the world. Like I once did, many people think they can't be happy without working hard. Like I once was, many are unaware that the 21st-century love affair with work started hundreds of years ago, and it's become toxic. Time for a divorce, or at least a separation...

In order to break away from this dysfunctional relationship, it's important to understand what has kept us in it: an underlying belief that the purpose of human life is productive work.

In fact, "work" and "purpose" are often used interchangeably in modern society, although they are generally two different things. That's not to say that your purpose can't align with your career. Of course, it can. That's certainly true in my case. Yet, I can still make a clear distinction between what I do because it's part of the job that pays my bills and what I choose to do when I have free time. There's not a lot of overlap between those two categories.

I've spent three years studying this, consulting with psychologists, sociologists, even paleontologists. I sought the answer to the question of whether human beings need to work — whether a lack of work actually makes us sick or miserable.

Here's the bottom line.

I'm aware that this may be controversial: Humans don't need to work in order to be happy. To be fair, there are some nuances in this issue. One Gallup poll found that "the longer that Americans are unemployed, the more likely they are to report signs of poor psychological well-being." The unemployed are more than twice as likely to seek treatment for depression as those with full-time jobs. However, there's no evidence that it's the lack of work that causes depression — correlation is not causation.

In my opinion, it's a combination of worry about finances and the anxiety brought on by losing one's status in society. Our culture is so invested in the idea that work is what makes a person's life worthwhile, that lack of work inevitably leads people to believe they are worthless. After being laid off, one man told the New York Times "Your whole life your job defines who you are. All of a sudden that's gone, and you don't know what to take pride in anymore."

This idea that the emphasis on work in our society has made us all feel that our job description is our identity has been studied for years by researchers. Alexandra Michel of the University of Pennsylvania says people put in long hours not for "rewards, punishments, or obligation," but because "many feel existentially lost without the driving structure of work in their life—even if that structure is neither proportionally profitable nor healthy in a physical or psychological sense."

The truth is, we have been told for 200 years that hard work is patriotic, that work ethic is what separates good people from bad, and that those who sit around all day are immoral and undeserving. After all, the Bible tells us that "idle hands are the devil's workshop."

But we were lied to. So were our parents, our grandparents, and our great-parents — going back for generations.

Work doesn't make you a deserving person. You are worthwhile whether you're working or not. Your life has value even on days when you're unproductive. What's more, if you inherited $100 million dollars tomorrow and never had to work another day in your life, you would probably be just fine. You may need a job to pay the bills, but you don't need work to be happy. In fact, if you can afford it, you might be a lot happier if you worked just a little less.


Celeste Headlee