Jim Denison: Can Hard Work Buy Happiness?

Daniel Markovits is a professor at Yale Law School with previous study at the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale Law School. In The Atlantic, he pulls back the curtain on one of America’s most destructive myths: the harder you work, the happier you’ll be.

The dictionary defines meritocracy as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” According to Markovits, this system has become highly restrictive in America, producing wealthy parents who produce privileged children.

For instance, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Markovits cites a study indicating that only one out of every one hundred children born into the poorest fifth of households will join the top 5 percent. As a sign of the eroding middle class, fewer than one in fifty born into the middle fifth will do the same.

But meritocracy is not only leaving behind those whose family income does not qualify them to participate. In Markovits’ words, it also “devours the elite.”


Wealthy students demonstrate higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than poor students do. They suffer depression and anxiety at rates as much as triple those of their age peers. In a recent study of Silicon Valley High School students, 54 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

Their parents are suffering as well. In 1962, the American Bar Association declared that there are “approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year” available to the typical lawyer. By 2000, the number had risen to 2,400 billable hours. According to Markovits, billing 2,400 hours could require working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. six days a week, every day of the year, without vacation or sick days.

It is unsurprising that roughly two-thirds of elite workers say they would decline a promotion if the new job demanded yet more of their energy. Most Americans who work more than sixty hours a week report that they would prefer twenty-five fewer hours. They complain about the “time famine” resulting from overwork that interferes with their marriages, families, and health.

Markovits concludes: “It is simply not possible to get rich off your own human capital without exploiting yourself and impoverishing your inner life, and meritocrats who hope to have their cake and eat it too deceive themselves.”


Markovits’ solution is to make education more inclusive and to favor goods and services that can be produced by workers without elite training and degrees. In this way, “The elite can reclaim its leisure in exchange for a reduction of income and status that it can easily afford. At the same time, the middle class can regain its income and status and reclaim the center of American life.”

These are undoubtedly positive steps. But Markovits’ fascinating essay leaves out a component that I believe is foundational to the kind of flourishing he wants for all Americans.

Consider a book written from the other end of the spectrum. Hillbilly Elegy is J. D. Vance’s story of his family’s roots in Kentucky and Ohio. In many ways, it makes Markovits’ case: many in rural, impoverished America see no future for themselves and have given up hope.

With one exception. Vance reconnected with his biological father after years of family chaos and a “revolving door of father figures.” The reason: his father had become a Christian.

Vance notes: “In this, Dad embodied a phenomenon social scientists have observed for decades: Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all.”

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Source: Christian Headlines