New Year’s resolutions often involve using our time better, focusing on things that can make our lives happier or more meaningful. And as Katy Milkman, a Wharton behavioral scientist, has documented, the start of the new year actually does increase the chances that we’ll stick with such changes thanks to the benefits of a “fresh-start effect.”
With this unique moment just ahead of us, the prescriptions of Cassie Holmes in her recent book Happier Hour are worth considering. Holmes, a social psychologist at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, teaches a class called “Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design” to MBA students.
A big part of our happiness comes from our intentional thought and behavior, Holmes contends. (Life circumstances, such as income level or physical attractiveness, have less impact on happiness than people often believe.) And Happier Hour is a research-based roadmap for how to organize your time more intentionally in order to be happier.
“It’s about knowing how to allocate the hours you have to achieve outcomes that ultimately matter—the ones that will allow you to look back on your days, years, and life feeling satisfied and fulfilled,” writes Holmes. “And it’s about being completely engaged during that time to make those hours happier.” (p. 11)
Her recommendations are helpful and useful fodder for New Year’s resolutions, if not totally surprising:
- Spend time with other people. In Holmes’ research, people report that their happiest times are when they’re with their loved ones (a category that includes close friends, family, and pets.) But just being together isn’t sufficient: ”The key ingredient among these activities isn’t the mere presence of another,” Holmes writes. “It is that spending time with the other person is the primary focus.” Going on a walk or having a meal together fit this description, while watching TV together does not. Helping other people also contributes to one’s happiness.
- Deepen the content of your conversations. One approach is to ask someone increasingly probing questions—such as “What is one of your biggest fears?”—while sharing your own answers. (For other examples of questions that generate friendship—and perhaps more—check out “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love” based on psychologist Arthur Aron’s research.)
- Go outside. Holmes’ research found that people’s happiest activities frequently involve being outdoors. That finding is supported by a large-scale UK survey, which also concluded that the happiness boost from being outside doesn’t require good weather, being in nature, or any particular activity. “It’s simply about stepping outside,” Holmes writes. (p. 67)
- Exercise. “Exercise is such an effective mood booster that one study showed it beating out medication for treating depression,” Holmes writes. “Exercise can also make us smarter by improving cognitive and executive functioning (which we use for planning, multitasking, and dealing with ambiguity); and it’s correlated with math and reading achievement among school-age kids.” (p. 73)
- Sleep. At least seven hours each night is recommended.
- Put your phone away. It limits your focus on engaging with other people. While you’re at it, limit social media usage. It sucks up time and can heighten feelings of loneliness, depression, and feelings of missing out. And TV watching consumes hours of Americans’ day, crowding out time they might spend on activities that more reliably contribute to happiness, such as those listed above.
- Set aside time to think. Holmes cites former US secretary of state George Shultz, who scheduled an hour a week for quiet reflection, not to be interrupted by anyone other than his wife or the president. This is time to step back and consider the larger questions in your life.
- Treat your weekend like a vacation. Limit the time spent working or doing chores, and allow yourself to pay increased attention to what you’re doing. In Holmes’ research, “Those who’d treated their weekend like a vacation ended up happier, less stressed, and more satisfied. They were also happier throughout the weekend, enjoying Saturday and Sunday more.” (p. 138)
Holmes helpfully offers worksheets and instructions for tracking how you actually spend your time and what makes you happy, and then plotting out your schedule to better prioritize that. Once you’ve identified what makes you happy, it helps you filter any commitments you agree to take on. She recommends starting by blocking out time for your most important activities—”your most connecting activities, activities that help fulfill your purpose, time to think, time to do nothing, time for yourself.” (p. 211) Other tips include pairing activities you have to do such as chores with activities you want to do, such as listening to podcasts, and getting things you don’t enjoy all done in one block rather than spreading them out.
Here are some other useful observations:
- Holmes found that how much discretionary time you have available doesn’t impact your level of happiness, except when you have less than two hours or more than five hours each day. (Both being time strapped and having too much time on your hands can make you unhappy.) “This is important because it means that, except at the very extremes, to enjoy greater satisfaction in life, it’s not so much a question of the amount we have,” writes Holmes. “It’s really about how we spend what we have. (p. 11)
- People feel happiest when experiencing physical intimacy or socializing with loved ones, according to research by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. They enjoy commuting, work, and housework the least.
- What you enjoy most changes as you get older. “Happiness from ordinary experiences gradually increases with age,” Holmes writes. “As people get older, they naturally start recognizing the limited nature of their time left on earth. Realizing their time is precious, people become more prone to savor even the simplest of moments.” (p. 115) Holmes says thinking about how your time is scarce can increase your focus and enjoyment of everyday activities.
- Whether you’re focused can matter more than what you’re actually doing. “Paying attention to your present activity could be a greater determinant of your happiness than the activity itself,” Holmes writes. (p. 136)
- Finding purpose in your work (beyond just making money, ideally) and making friends in the workplace contributes to happiness. “Even if you’re not in the perfect job (and let’s be real, no job is perfect), aligning your job with your values (what you care about), your strengths (what you’re good at), and your passions (what you love doing) makes you more motivated and better at the job—and also more satisfied on the job and with your life overall,” Holmes writes. (p. 89)
To be sure:
- Some of the research and takeaways are familiar to those who’ve read books such as How to Change by Katy Milkman or followed cognitive scientist Laurie Santos’s class on happiness at Yale (there’s a free online version on Coursera.)
- Happier Hour is also part of a broader wave of books about happiness and human flourishing, including two due out in January: The Good Life by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, and Tomorrowmind by Martin Seligman and Gabriella Rosen Kellerman.
- For other guides to better time management, we recommend Tranquility by Tuesday by Laura Vanderkam and Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
- Some of Holmes’ prescriptions are better suited to people who have more control over their time like academic researchers, and would be challenging for people with less work scheduling autonomy and greater caregiving responsibilities. It also requires real discipline to plot out your ideal weekly schedule and stick to it.
- “In a survey in which my research team asked thousands of people representing a range of occupations and income levels from across the country whether they would prefer more money or more time, the majority chose money. Yet this might not be the right choice.” (p. 12)
- “Happiness increases motivation, creativity, and adaptive problem-solving—all of which can help us at work and get us through challenging times outside of work. It makes us like people more and be liked by people more. It makes us nicer, more likely to say and do kind things and to help others out.” (p. 13)
- “When we feel as though we have too little time, we end up living a smaller life.” (p. 24)
- “Exercising might not only be good for your physical health: it could also increase the amount of time you feel you have.” (p. 30)
- “Until now, the advice offered to combat time poverty has been ‘Do less.’ But for those of us who want more from life, not less, this guidance isn’t particularly helpful. “ (p. 39)
- “Spending [time] in ways that get your body moving, that connect you to other people, or that make you feel greater connection in general is surprisingly effective in expanding what you feel you’re capable of.” (p. 39)
- “Happiness is a choice. How we decide to approach our hours and spend our days determines the happiness we get to enjoy in life. So the question is, how should you spend your waking hours in order to live a better, happier, and more fulfilling life?” (p. 45)
- “The happiest hours of the day tend to be those shared with loved ones.” (p. 62)
- “Carve out and protect time for the people you love. And during this time, be fully there: present and undistracted. Put your phone away. And yes, relationships do take time. But they are absolutely worth the investment.” (p. 231)
- “The summing together of your every hour does not decide how satisfied you do feel (or will feel) with your life overall. The peaks and end exert a powerful influence on the stories you tell yourself about your life.” (p. 237)
- “Happiness has agency. Happiness is a choice. Every hour of every day.” (p. 239)
The bottom line is that Happier Hour provides specific instructions and useful worksheets for identifying what makes you happy and planning your time to better reflect that. It’s a helpful research-based playbook for stepping back and prioritizing your time in 2023, and beyond.
You can order Happier Hour at Bookshop.org or Amazon.
Watch a charming short video by Meir Kay that Holmes cites about how to spend your time to make your life meaningful.
Read our book recommendations from 2022.
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