Put down the remote and back slowly away from the television.
Despite the sharp rise in our standard of living in recent decades, Americans today are little or no happier than earlier generations. Why not?
A new study suggests one possibility: Maybe we need to be smarter about how we spend our time. And, no, that doesn’t mean watching more TV.
Feeling unpleasant. You can think of your happiness as having three components. First, there’s your basic disposition — whether you are, by nature, a happy person or not. Clearly, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about this.
Second, there are your life’s circumstances, such as your age, health, marital status and income. Often, this stuff isn’t nearly as important as folks imagine. If your income doubled, you would initially be delighted. But research suggests you would quickly get used to all that extra money.
That brings us to the third factor, which is how you spend your time — something you have a fair amount of control over. This is the subject of a major new study by academics Daniel Kahneman, Alan Krueger, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz and Arthur Stone.
For the study, the five professors surveyed some 4,000 Americans, asking what they did the previous day and then quizzing them in detail about three randomly selected events from the day. Those surveyed were asked to rate the three episodes based on feelings such as pain, happiness, stress and sadness. All this was used to calculate what percentage of time people spent in an unpleasant state.
Getting involved. Result? Women, folks under age 65, those divorced or separated, lower-income earners and the less educated were likely to spend a bigger chunk of their day in an unpleasant state.
But what I found most intriguing was the study’s data on which activities we enjoy. The five professors grouped activities into six clusters, based on the emotions associated with each.
The standout cluster was what the authors label “engaging leisure and spiritual activities,” things like visiting friends, exercising, attending church, listening to music, fishing, reading a book, sitting in a cafe or going to a party. When we spend time on our favorite of these activities, we’re typically happy, engrossed and not especially stressed.
“These are things you choose to do, rather than have to do,” notes one of the study’s co-authors, Prof. Schkade of the University of California, San Diego.
The obvious implication: If we devote more time to these activities, maybe we would be more satisfied with our lives. Yet the evidence suggests we’ve missed a huge chance to do just that — which may help explain why Americans are little or no happier than they were four decades ago.
Zoning out. Over that stretch, men reduced the amount of time they spent working. Meanwhile, women — as a group — spent more time earning income, reflecting their increased work-force participation. But this increased time at the office was more than offset by a drop in time devoted to mundane chores.
In other words, both men and women had the chance to lavish more time on “engaging leisure and spiritual activities.” But in fact, time spent on these activities has actually declined over the past four decades.
Instead, there’s been a significant increase in the hours devoted to what the authors call “neutral downtime,” which is mostly watching television. Women now spend 15% of their waking hours staring at the tube, while men devote 17%.
Watching TV may be low-stress and moderately enjoyable. But people aren’t mentally engaged the way they are when they’re, say, exercising or socializing.
“I wonder whether there are self-control problems when it comes to watching television,” muses Prof. Krueger, an economist at Princeton University and another of the study’s co-authors. “I wonder whether people would feel better about their lives if they spent their leisure time doing something that was more interactive and more engaging.”