The scientifically proven best ways to spend time if you want to be happy

Image: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
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Whereas a loss of $100 today has the potential of being earned back tomorrow, a lost hour cannot be recuperated. Deciding how to spend time is a clearly consequential decision.

But what may not be so obvious is exactly how our decisions about how to spend time relate to our moment-to-moment and long-term happiness.

A mounting body of research examines this question. Yes, studies have found initial evidence, that, on average, people feel more positive emotion (like happiness and joy) when they are engaged in leisure activities, such as exercising and socializing, than when they are engaged in commuting, work, and housework. But maximizing happiness seems to be more complicated than simply maximizing vacation time.

In one of the seminal studies on this topic, some respondents reported feeling happier at work (vs. leisure or other activities), suggesting there are individual differences in which time-use activities promote happiness. Other studies that have used more sophisticated data collection methods suggest that relatively active forms of leisure, such as exercising and volunteering, are linked to greater daily positive mood compared to more passive forms of leisure, such as watching TV, relaxing, and napping. Still others take a long-term view of happiness and investigate what creates a sense of meaning in people’s lives.

Maximizing day-to-day happiness

When researchers track the activities in which people report feeling happy, several themes emerge. These studies suggest that, if your goal is happiness, it pays to:

Cultivate social connections: Time spent connecting with others tends to be the happiest part of most people’s day, and experiences that are shared produce greater happiness than those experienced alone. High quality social relationships are essential for mental and physical health. Meta-analyses suggest that the health benefits of social connection are comparable to those of exercising regularly and not smoking.

Even fleeting social interactions, such as chatting with one’s Starbucks barista or a fellow commuter on a bus, can make people feel connected and therefore bolster happiness.

Help others: Spending time helping others is another activity that can enhance mood and physical health.

One way that helping others can promote subjective well-being is by reducing the stress associated with feeling time-constrained. Study participants who spent time helping someone else (vs. who spent time on themselves) reported feeling like they had more time, in part because it made them realize all they could accomplish with their time.

Be active: As already discussed, engaging in active leisure activities seems to reliably promote happiness.

Consistent with these findings, people also report greater happiness when they are busy, especially when they can justify their busyness. In North America, busyness is now a status symbol.

Idleness, on the other hand, is extremely upsetting. People would rather shock themselves than be left alone with their own thoughts. These findings might help to explain why people who are unemployed (despite their abundance of free-time) report lower levels of daily happiness than those who are employed. Notably however, once busyness transforms into feelings of time stress, people experience lower positive mood and life satisfaction—and this effect holds even among people with a stated preference to be busy.

Increase variety: Across the activities that fill people’s lives, greater variety increases excitement and engagement, which helps to offset the threat of hedonic adaptation. Notably, however, though filling one’s day or week with highly varied activities increases happiness, fitting highly varied activities into shorter time periods (e.g., an hour) reduces happiness by making people feel like they have accomplished less. These findings provide initial evidence that multitasking can undermine feelings of productivity and happiness.

Savoring Time Spent

In addition to what people spend their time doing, the extent to which people are mentally engaged in those activities can influence happiness. This speaks to the importance of savoring daily experiences. One strategy for doing so is to turn them into rituals. For example, study participants rated a chocolate as more flavorful and worth savoring when they had completed a ritual prior to consumption (e.g., by unwrapping the chocolate in a specific way). Also, engaging in the creation of products can make the experience of those products more satisfying—an observation called “the IKEA effect.”

When people are aware their time is running out, they are more likely to savor whatever time they spend. For instance, people imagining it is their last month in their current city derive greater enjoyment from their day-to-day experiences; college students focused on the imminence of graduation engage more in their typical college-related activities and experience greater happiness from them; and people who temporarily give up something pleasurable derive greater pleasure from it the next time it is consumed. While extraordinary experiences produce high levels of happiness regardless of the amount of time left in life, ordinary experiences produce high levels of happiness among older people and younger people who perceive their future as limited.

Realizing the preciousness of time encourages people to extract greater happiness from even the most mundane activities.

Extracting lasting happiness from time

Thus far, we have reviewed findings identifying ways to spend time that promote positive mood and immediate feelings of happiness. Yet, a more lasting sense of satisfaction and purpose and meaning in life is also an important factor in subjective well-being. Therefore, in addition to understanding how people should spend their time to maximize their daily mood, it is also important to clarify what activities help to maximize a sense of meaning.

Activities that are not necessarily rated as resulting in immediate happiness (e.g., working or spending time with young children) can be rated high in meaning. These “objectively unpleasant” daily activities can indirectly contribute to greater wellbeing by enhancing meaning in life.

People presumably spend their time to satisfy various components of well-being. For instance, they may watch TV seeking pleasure, but they may volunteer at a food bank to feel a greater sense of meaning.

More research is needed to understand how best to spend time to maximize daily happiness, as well as life satisfaction. Since moment-to-moment happiness does not simply sum up to one’s memory of the experience or one’s overall evaluation of the experience, an important question then becomes which source of well-being should be optimized to translate into greater well-being each day and over the course of people’s lives.

This article has been adapted from a chapter in the Handbook of Well-Being.