Health

America Is Getting Dumber, and It's Because We Work Too Damn Much

Published On 11/04/2016 Published On 11/04/2016
bored dumb American worker
Drew Swantak/Oren Aks/Thrillist

The 50-hour (or longer) workweek is something Americans wear like a badge of honor. We one-up each other with long hours at the office, overtime, and packed schedules. Are there even people in this world who work less than 40 hours a week? What do those lazy bums do with all that free time, burn sage and make hemp bracelets? 

Actually, they're probably much closer to passing that confounded Jeopardy! contestant test than you are -- according to a recent study, people who work fewer hours than the standard workweek end up being smarter. Putting in a ton of hours for The Man isn't just bad for your stress levels and sense of identity; it really messes with your IQ. 

Working more than 25 hours a week makes people dumber

Researchers wanted to test the whole "use it or lose it" theory about working adults -- the conventional wisdom says that continuing to hold down a job helps people stay sharp as they get older, an argument often used to defend raising the retirement age.

The results suggest that the hypothesis is true... up to a point. Specifically, up to 25 hours per week, and cognitive function really went downhill when subjects worked 40 or more hours a week. So the steadfast American belief that working longer hours is better for success, mental function, and overall quality of life is totally BS.

In fact, the standard workweek could be making people dumber. Adults in the US work an average of 47 hours a week, which means we're overworking ourselves into a nation of idiots. 

But not working at all isn't the solution

This isn't to say that working is all bad; cognitive function actually improved when people worked, up to about 25 hours a week. And the study looked at adults 40 years and older -- which isn't all that old, especially given the ever-expanding life expectancy -- so if you're younger, you're probably finding other ways to kill your cognitive abilities. 

The upshot is that while people shouldn't totally quit working when they retire, even at a relatively young age excessive work can hasten decline. What's more, people who worked more than 60 hours a week fared worse cognitively than people who weren't working at all. Basically, being unemployed is better than being overworked, intelligence-wise. How's that for irony! 

Do we really want to make our nation dumber by insisting that more work is better? Wouldn't we all be less stressed (and smarter) if we gave out more vacation and enforced tougher overtime rules

What does this mean for me, the go-getter who brags to my friends about how much I work?

Stop doing that! It's annoying, and it won't pay off in the long run. If you're younger than 40, it may seem like a long way away, but it'll come sooner than you think -- and this study didn't make a conclusion one way or another for adults under 40, so more research is needed. The bottom line is that, if possible, find some work-life balance that gives you time to rest and recover away from the job. 

Does this mean everyone will migrate to the three-day workweek? Tuesday will be the new hump day, Wednesday the new Friday. If four full days of sleeping in, lazy brunches, and Netflix binges mean we'll all be smarter, and better-equipped to live long, happy lives, then maybe it's time to change our culture. All in the name of science! 

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. She's a big advocate of the three-day workweek. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaStiehl.

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