Happier Hour

From The Wall Street Journal:

Growing up, Cassie Holmes was known as “Little Miss Happiness.” A cheerful outlook seemed to come naturally to her—or at least nothing in her life suggested that the world was anything but a sunny place.

Then, one fateful day, a week before she was to marry her childhood sweetheart—her wedding dress packed in her car for the trip she was about to take from Palo Alto, Calif., to San Diego, where the wedding was to take place—her cellphone rang: Her fiancé had abruptly decided to call things off. The experience left her humiliated and depressed. “I was confronted with the harsh reality that bad things happen,” Ms. Holmes writes. “Feeling this depth of unhappiness forced me to realize that I shouldn’t rely on my disposition to experience happiness going forward.”

And so Ms. Holmes, a social psychologist and a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, began studying exactly how people can make themselves feel better. “Knowing what to do—and practicing it over and over—is not only how grumps can overcome their muted daily enjoyment,” she says, “but how all of us can get through even the toughest of situations.” In “Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most,” Ms. Holmes engagingly conveys what she has learned from her study.

Happiness is a well-covered topic, and so Ms. Holmes has focused her research on how people can spend their time to boost well-being. One of the first misconceptions she tackles: that more free time is always better. Her analysis of time-use data and well-being finds that people are happiest with 2 to 5 hours of discretionary time per day—a nice reality check for anyone fantasizing about quitting a job to move to a tropical island. It is also a comforting statistic for those who, like Ms. Holmes, are raising young kids (in Ms. Holmes’s case, with a different Prince Charming, who turned out to have more staying power than the first one). Two hours is achievable if 10 is not, and 10, it turns out, may not be better anyway.

Several financial studies have found that giving money away makes people feel happier than spending it on themselves, and Ms. Holmes has found that the same thing is true with time. When research subjects were either assigned to help edit a high-school student’s essay for 15 minutes or allowed to leave the lab 15 minutes early, the subjects who helped with the editing later reported “having more ‘spare time’ than those who had received the fifteen minute windfall.” While this finding may seem improbable, it points up the oddity of time perception. It’s easy to tell yourself that, being busy, you have no time for anything else. It’s harder to sustain that harried self-narrative when you feel effective and capable, which is what helping others accomplishes.

Ms. Holmes and her fellow researchers have also discovered that as people get older they tend to find a higher level of happiness in ordinary events (say, a walk with a friend) in contrast to younger people, who mostly see happiness boosts from extraordinary events (a great vacation or show). “Realizing their time is precious, people become more prone to savor even the simplest of moments,” she writes, which suggests a mind trick for finding such moments more meaningful: Consider how many times you have done an activity and, rather than assuming it will be possible indefinitely, calculate how many times more you can reasonably expect it to happen again.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal