If You Work Hard, You're Likely to Play Hard Too

“The quicker you here the faster you go,” Wiz Khalifa raps in “Work Hard Play Hard,” and he may be onto something, scientifically speaking. Two recent studies have shown strong positive correlation between working hard and playing hard.

The first, a British Medical Journal study, was picked up by a lot of media outlets: this study measured “playing hard” by “risky” alcohol consumption (14 drinks a week for women, 21 for men) and “working hard” by “long hours” (more than 48 hours per week). The results rolled out like a dream. "There was no difference in these associations between men and women or by age or socioeconomic groups, geographical regions, sample type (population based v occupational cohort), prevalence of risky alcohol use in the cohort, or sample attrition rate," the study's abstract reads.

But then there’s this — a biologist, Lonnie Aarssen at Queen’s University, led a study that also looked at the work hard play hard correlation. Those results, published this year in the Open Psychology Journal, show that people highly attracted to accomplishment were also highly attracted to leisure. And there’s more: the “work hard play hard” people of Aarssen’s study also scored highly in their “mortality salience” — their awareness of death. A Forbes reporter summarizes Aarssen’s understanding of this correlation: “…the two human drives originate from being aware of our own mortality: a legacy drive lets us leave something behind after we die (the delusion that we can transcend our demise), while a leisure drive distracts us from worrying about death – what Aarssen calls ‘self-impermanence anxiety.’”

If work hard play hards are aware, even hyperaware, of their own mortality, then perhaps their risky behavior, measured in the BMJ study, is more understandable. If you know you’re going to die, why play it safe? Why not work like there’s no tomorrow to leave behind a legacy and drink like there’s no tomorrow to forget that you’re stumbling towards the grave?

There’s another distinct personality type that emerged out of Aarssen’s study, a type that, like work hard play hards, have found a way to shield themselves from the fear of mortality: the religious family type. For this “type,” the parent aspect displaces work as the means of ensuring legacy. And religion, it would seem, alleviates the fear of “semi-permanence”: some religions actually provide reassurance of an afterlife, but even ones that don’t offer comfort in the idea that, as part of a "greater design," human life has purpose.

So now we wonder, are work hard play hards born or made? If you’re steered towards high-pressure career success by your parents, or if you’re thrown into financial insecurity through an illness or an unplanned pregnancy — basically, if you’re almost forced to work hard, are you “made” to play hard? More interesting is this — even if work hard play hards are born that way (and we don't know), does our culture make it difficult for them to reform in order to find more balance?