The Sunday Neurosis: Does Your Education Affect How You Feel On the Weekend?

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Have you ever been sitting around at home on a Sunday afternoon and felt a cloud come over you? A feeling of sadness, despair, or a kind of existential dread? I’m not talking about dreading Monday—I’m talking about times when you’ve felt this way on a Sunday and then felt better on Monday.

If you have, then you’re not alone. This weekend-induced shift in mood has been the subject of psychological conjecture since at least the 1950s, when Viktor Frankl (whom I’ve discussed before) coined a term for it: “Sunday neurosis.” 

He described it as “that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.”

In other words, if you experience it, then you don't have a very meaningful life. But German researchers studying time-related fluctuations in people’s levels of life satisfaction (aka happiness) have confirmed observations that have been made since Frankl's time, and made some new ones, that provide grounds for additional interpretations of this phenomenon.

They confirmed that, within a random sample of 34,000 Germans, life satisfaction does dip for some people over the weekend, depending on level of education. Men with the least education didn’t experience a significant fluctuation over the course of a week at all. On the other hand, men with a medium level of education experienced it on Sunday, and the most-educated experienced it on Saturday and Sunday!

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On the other hand, the least-educated men experienced a significant decline in life satisfaction toward the end of the month, whereas more-educated people didn’t display any monthly fluctuations. (Women's happiness didn't fluctuate on a monthly basis, but the most-educated women did display a Sunday neurosis.)

So education makes me less happy?

Fascinating information, for sure! What does it mean, though? Well, the German experimenters offered a hypothesis for the monthly fluctuations: that the least-educated men, who also had the lowest income, were probably being affected by financial hardship toward the end of the month. This seems like a reasonable idea, though it's unclear to me why women wouldn't be affected in the same way.

The authors didn’t speculate on the weekly differences at all, but I'll give it a shot.  I’ll need to make a couple of assumptions in the form of broad generalizations. One is that people with higher levels of education are more likely to have “careers,” whereas people with less education are more likely to have “jobs.”

Another assumption I'll make is that workers are less likely to feel a significant personal investment in ajob—i.e., its primary purpose is to provide income—while careers tend to involve, and in many cases require, significant personal investments of energy or time.

For instance, I'm thinking of what's required of a person to pursue an advanced degree, or people who work long extra hours for no additional pay in order to advance their careers.

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Now, there are plenty of people with careers who don't identify with their work very much, or find meaning or fulfillment in it. However, I'd argue that more people with careers do so than people who, especially nowadays, need to take any job they can find in order to put food on the table.

If you’re with me so far on these, again, broad generalizations, then consider something that we already know about motivation and happiness: people who are motivated by extrinsic rewards like money tend to be less happy than those motivated by intrinsic, intangible rewards, like competence, doing something personally meaningful, or doing good deeds. In fact, studies show that people who volunteer are some of the happiest people around. 

Now, putting these ideas together, we can see how, generally speaking, people with varying degrees of education might relate differently to their work and, in turn, to their weekends. Someone “working for the weekend” enjoys those two days as a reward for five days of toil, whereas someone for whom work is more integrated with their sense of self in a positive way can actually suffer from the lack of vocational engagement.

The fact that less-educated, lower-income people (men, anyway) in the study seem to have more fundamental financial concerns, while more-educated and higher-income people have more existential ones, also bears out the well-established fact that collecting more and more money won't cure you of unhappiness. Getting more money boosts happiness the most for people lowest on the socioeconomic spectrum, who are having trouble meeting their basic needs.

It can’t be the case, though, that being engaged in a fulfilling career, or being well-educated, condemns a person to being unhappy outside of work, any more than having an hourly job or less education does. We all know that there are examples all over the place of people who would prove those assertions wrong.

What it means for you

As usual, statistics aren't great for predicting individual experience, but they are good for stimulating thought. That's why this most recent research, and the ideas I’m offering here, just add additional color to Frankl’s hypothesis—they don’t upend it.

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Sure, it's ideal to be engaged in existentially fulfilling activities at work, but not everyone can have that. In terms of your overall well-being, the overarching concern is how well the various dimensions of your life—the psychological, physical, social, and vocational—fit together with each other, and with your core self.

That's the case whatever your level of education, socioeconomic status, or type of occupation happens to be. (That's what the my work is all about.) 

So, if you experience the Sunday (or whole weekend) blahs on a regular basis, it is a sign of something, and you'd do well to pay heed to Frankl. You may have become too focused on work and neglected other areas of your life. And, as Frankl supposes, your work responsibilities might be masking an underlying misalignment in one or more areas of your life.

If that's the case, then thank goodness for the Sunday neurosis for providing the opportunity to realize that—because you can do something about that, even if you can't do something about your job.

What are your thoughts on this research? Have you ever experienced the Sunday neurosis? Please share your insights in the comments!