Happiness, both science and experience tell us, is a complicated concept. The good life consists of connection, meaning, beauty, learning and momentary pleasure. And we often have to sacrifice one of these to chase another. As entrepreneurs and parents of small children can tell you, the things that give us the most satisfaction in the long run are often pretty miserable from day to day.
This complexity has made building a happy life the subject of millennia of philosophical thought and far too big a subject for a short column like this one. But while I can’t tell you how to answer the biggest questions, I can point you to: fascinating new research that shows you’re probably misunderstanding the smallest and easiest to change parts of the happiness equation.
Of the 27 leisure activities, guess which one brings people the least joy?
When we think about how to optimize our happiness, we often think of the big things first. Who should be my partner? What should my life’s work be? Where should I live? These are all hugely important questions, but getting them right is personal and difficult. However, how you spend your free time is up to you and can easily be changed. There’s nothing stopping you from switching from fishing to golf or baking or whatever.
And these choices, as small as they seem, are actually very important. A large body of research shows that hobbies reduce stress, increase resilience, improve creativity and even help us perform better at work. Studies also show that the specific hobbies you choose matter. For example, social hobbies have been shown to make people significantly happier than solo hobbies. And a huge amount of data shows that happiness helps you be more successful.
That’s a nice follow-up to the study I mentioned above (hat tip to this one New York Times opinion piece from former Google data science and author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz for the pointer). In previous generations, when researchers wanted to study happiness, they had to ask subjects to reflect on the past and complete labor-intensive surveys. People misremembered, lied, or slacked, so the data wasn’t ideal. Thanks to the ubiquitous smartphones, researchers who want to know how happy people are at any given moment can simply ping them with a 30-second survey and ask.
For example, technology has led to an explosion in the quality and quantity of moment-to-moment happiness data. Again, this data doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to design a happy life — eating pie may be a perfect 10 on your joy scale, but you’ll probably be disappointed on your deathbed if that’s all you want to do with your life. have done — but it does offer a good insight into which activities bring us the most temporary joy.
So what’s the verdict after scientists ping tens of thousands of people to ask about their activities and mood, and collect millions of data points? In short, many of us are very bad at choosing how we spend our free time.
Of the 27 possible leisure activities listed by the researchers’ app, “texting, emailing, and social media” came last in terms of happiness. Just slightly above it was surfing the web. The only activities people disliked more than being online were things like commuting, being sick in bed, and dealing with administration/finance.
Which leisure activity brought people the most happiness? It won’t shock anyone to learn that sex topped the list of most joyous activities. Attending shows, going to museums and libraries, exercising and exercising, gardening, making music, going out with friends and being outside in nature were next on the list.
How much time do you spend on the most joyful activities?
None of this is terribly surprising if you’re doing research on happiness (and probably even if you don’t), but it does raise an obvious question: which of these activities do you actually spend most of your free time on? time? Does the way you spend your free time align well with the data on what really makes people happy?
I don’t think I’m going out of line when I suggest that many of us spend tons of time on screen-based activities that science shows don’t bring us much joy, and relatively little time on real-world activities that do. . †
Changing your career is difficult. Changing your partner is even harder. But changing what you do on a Saturday afternoon is dead easy. It won’t solve all your happiness problems, but this research suggests it can bring you much more joy in the moment. While you’re figuring out the rest, why not take the easy win?