Happiness Begins After Work | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 14.08.2004
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Happiness Begins After Work

Longer work hours and shorter vacation -- or part time work and more flexibility? In Germany, many people are rethinking their relationship between work and free time. But what's the recipe for success?


Be it barbequeing, hanging out or pursuing a hobby, Germans love their free time

Most people draw positive emotions and self-affirmation from their work. It's also where they place the bulk of their energy. German researchers recently delved into this seeming paradox and came up with some interesting results. Nowadays, more than ever before, having fun with friends, leisure time and free time is more highly valued than ever before. Even professionals in the IT sector, once known as people who burned the midnight oil, have discovered the concept of leisure time.

Where are the workaholics?

Munich researchers contracted by the Hans Böckler Foundation recently conducted interviews with software developers, consultants, executives and administrative workers from IT companies. The results? People these days are seeking a greater division between their work and private lives. Spending a long evening or even an entire night in front of the screen has fallen out of vogue.

Frau am Computer

Some people have abandoned entrepreneurship for more stabile working hours

Others have long appreciated the art of shutting down their computers and leaving work promptly at the end of the day, like Angelika. After years of burning the candle at both ends, the former entrepreneur gave up her independent job to take up a position as an accountant, where she has fixed office hours. Now, Angelika's work gives her the opportunity to use her time a little better. "My favorite thing is to meet up with nice people and entertain myself," she says. "I think it's great to just be together with other people, but I also need lots of quiet time for myself and like to stay home, too," the 50-year-old said.

Angelika is far from alone. Recent studies have pointed to the new trend of a "comfort culture" among Germans. Being comfortable at home is the top priority for most Germans surveyed. In one study, 68 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied at home if they had a television. Forty percent said all they needed was a radio to be content. Another 46 percent said a newspaper and good food was all they needed. Today's modern, almost unavoidable amount of possibilities during one's free time are attracting a lot more people towards leisure -- a word that for a long time seemed almost forgotten in Germany. But few will admit that -- even today.

"For a long time, I thought, I absolutely have to have a hobby," said Angelika. "I thought about it a lot with my friends but still found myself unable to find anything. We were feeling some pretty low self-esteem because we hadn't found a hobby. But then we noticed that we didn't even need one. We're happy just wasting our free time -- and that's just fine."

Hobbies can be expensive, but not stressful

Tango-Schule in Münster

Students at a tango class in Münster

But some still let the pressure to peform control their free time. Inline skating on Mondays, jogging on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then maybe a dance class and an English brush up course once a week. However, people who lead that kind of lifestyle must also organize their lives exactly as they do their jobs, and that has its own set of limitations.

On the scale between idleness and someone who pursues many activities during his free time, 48-year-old dental technician Norbert says he falls somewhere in between. "My free time is really valuable to me and I have to admit that I also work to help finance some of my hobbies," he said. "I get a certain amount of fulfillment out of my job because I feel a lot of responsibility. But I can also experience that in my free time."

At times, Norbert says he would like to do more to live out his creative side. He's already in a part-time rock band. But he's also aware that working as a professional musician he would also experience the same kind of work pressure he has as a dental technician.

The exception: Hobby as career

Others have gone to the other extreme and turned their hobbies into careers. But with growing labor market crisis, that's mostly the exception. Take cabaret artist Stefan Reusch, for example. In his life, the borders between work and play are completely blurred. "That's not really normal free time," he says. "When I watch television at night, it's also part of my work -- at least partly." The evening news often includes items about Chancellor Gerhard Schröder or opposition leader Angela Merkel that Reusch will later comment on in his comedy show. "You're always watching it with one professional ear listening," too.

If Reusch is able to work three days and then have a long break, then he's quite happy. To be able to go jogging now and then, ride his bike or play a bit of soccer -- there's no lack of free time activity for Reusch on the days he doesn't have any work. "I'm not saying these are the best ways of using my free time or that I recharge my energy this way," he says. "You can also muddle through your spare time."

Most Germans don't want pressure

Reusch already knows that most Germans don't ideally like to mix their work and free time is. He also understands the kind of pressure many fall under both before and after work. "Our society isn't ill because of a division of free time and career, rather because both are carried out with such fear. People jog so they won't get too fat or look too old. They don't jog for fun," Reusch said.

Familie unter einem Baum

For example, if someone works too much during the week, then that person is under more pressure to have fun on Saturdays or during free time. Younger people then tend to party through the whole weekend. Fathers tend to do more with their children during that time.

"That means that when the weather is bad and people sit at home, he's still under pressure and has no way to burn off the steam," said Reusche. "I think that's unhealthy and not very nice."