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A Formula for Happiness?

Research suggests the Goldilocks Rule might apply.

Unsplash/Zohre Nemati
Source: Unsplash/Zohre Nemati

People more than ever are juggling a myriad of responsibilities in multiple spheres of life. Between career aspirations, household and parenting duties, romantic relationship attainments and time for yourself, it is no wonder that burnout and declining physical and mental health are at an all-time high. Add the stress of the extended pandemic, the loss of control, and grief over "the old way of life," and you've got a recipe for lower life satisfaction and lower perceived happiness.

If you notice that you've been having more frustrated days than usual, and that you've felt less hopeful than you did in the past, you're not alone. Many people are reporting these concerns but at a loss on how to make things better. How can we start to feel happier and more satisfied with life again?

An interesting study was conducted and published in the Social Science Research network which looked at the relationship between free time and life satisfaction. A survey of 35, 375 Americans showed that there is a Goldilocks Rule at play when it comes to free time.

For employed individuals, 2 1/2 hours of free time was associated with the highest ratings in life satisfaction. For unemployed people, the optimal free time clocked in at around 4 1/2 hours. Given that an average person's waking hours are somewhere between 15-18 hours per day, this shows that too much free time might actually be a detriment to our experience of positive emotions and lead to a decline in mental wellness.

So, free time has a U-shaped curve. Too little or too much, and you stop reaping the benefits. And the good news is, for people who say, "I'm too busy to have free time to do the things I want," 2 1/2 hours is perfectly doable if you are intentional about it. You can chop up the 2 1/2 hours by breaking it into smaller segments throughout the day. And you can help maximize the benefits of this free time by tapping into flow whenever you can during these moments.

Flow, first identified by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is one of life’s most enjoyable states of being. Have you ever been completely immersed in a task, where you enjoyed what you were doing so much that you forgot about time? That’s an example of Flow. People sometimes call it being "in the zone," where your mind is effortlessly mindful without having to try. There is a sense of focus, inner clarity, inner peace, timelessness, and extreme positive feelings. That’s what we can recreate for ourselves every day!

Oliverbeatson/Wikimedia Commons
Flow is the balance of high skill + high challenge
Source: Oliverbeatson/Wikimedia Commons

Check out the FLOW model on the left. Csikszentmihalyi tells us that to find flow, we have to get to an optimal challenge-skill balance. When we find something challenging and we believe our skillset would help meet that challenge, we’re in FLOW!

Here are the takeaways.

1. There is an optimal amount of free time. More free time does not equate to higher levels of happiness.

2. If you are intentional about it, each of us can create the optimal timeframe needed to improve our life satisfaction and well-being every day. Here are some top tips to make sure you get your optimal free time every day, to boost your satisfaction and happiness.

List Time-Wasters. Write down a list of things you know you waste time on and keep the list nearby when you are working. When you notice a new time-waster, add it to the list. Keeping this top of mind will help steer you away from unproductive behaviors.

Delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself, so start handing over some of your tasks that someone else can do, particularly if they are better at it or enjoy it more. Delegate at both home and work — this is a great time to teach your kids some responsibility!

Use Positive No. Do you feel bad saying no to people? Well, don’t. We all need to create boundaries, and saying no to lower priorities helps you to avoid overload and burnout. Really think through if you have the energy and motivation to commit to something before you do. Consider using positive no — say no to the request but offer an alternative or compromise that you feel better about agreeing to.

Create Rituals. Take a few minutes to lock in habits for repeating tasks, and tether them to existing rituals to make sure they get done. Here’s one example: I write my to-do lists every morning when I enjoy my coffee (which is a ritual that happens daily). This way, my to-do lists always get done.

Attack Open Space. Whenever you have 5 minutes of free time, ask yourself, “What can I do in the next 5 minutes?" Consult your to-do list, or take the time to do a 5-minute mindfulness activity or a quick stretch.

What do you want to do with your 2.5 hours of free time you’ll get every day with these tips? Perhaps you want to squeeze in this quick guided mindfulness meditation in your busy day. Get a dose of calm and clarity in under 5 minutes with this easy-to-follow Cue Words Meditation.

More from Judy Ho Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN
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More from Judy Ho Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN
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