When we think about a happy life, it can be tempting to think on a grand scale, to consider major events like birthdays, weddings or the birth of a child, but the truth is that days like that come around just once in a great while, maybe making up a week or two of each year. Instead, our weeks, our months and our lives are made up of normal days, distributed across workdays and weekends for the most of us. As a result, the true building blocks of a happy life look a lot more routine.
At this point, enough happiness research has been conducted that we can generalize a bit about some of the ingredients for a happy life. At a basic level, we need connection, a sense of meaning and the energetic support of a healthy body—or, relationships, projects, and sleep, diet and exercise. The good news is that unlike the wild destination weddings or over-the-top baby showers we see on social media, these ingredients are achievable for most people.
While it’s perhaps commonsensical to say that if we want to have a happier life, we should work on creating happier days, some common beliefs can get in our way. First, and most insidious, is the “everybody’s working for the weekend” mindset. With all respect to the band Loverboy, this is a terrible life philosophy. The work hard, play hard strategy that has us locating happiness in the weekend or solely during vacations has bad numbers behind it. After all, in a 52-week year, only 104 days are weekend days; that’s leaving a lot of the days of the year consigned to misery. Over a life, that’s a bad proportion.
The second, related belief that gets in our way is that happiness has to be carved out. While there’s a kind of truth to this, as in the case of taking an enriching art class, it’s also the case that already-existing time chunks can be converted from relatively mundane or even soul-sucking to happiness-inducing.
For example, on a recent episode of her Before Breakfast podcast, time-management expert Laura Vanderkam talks about renovating the lunch hour. After all, as she points out, over the course of a year, five hours a week adds up to 260 hours, the equivalent of over 30 eight-hour workdays. That’s quite a bit of
time to invest in building relationships with colleagues, exercising, reading novels or even writing a novel. Any of these activities is more likely to boost an overall sense of having a meaningful and happy life than the typical activity of munching a sandwich while mindlessly scrolling email.
This general principle can be applied to many of our daily routines. For example, people tend to be made unhappy by their commutes in and out of the office, an event that happens 10 times a week. With some forethought, though, this time can be reclaimed. Ride a train or a bus for your commute? Maybe you could set a reading project for the year. Drive a car? What about committing to learning a new skill by listening to podcasts on the topic? Walk? How about a standing phone call with a family member or friend who lives far away?
The same idea can be applied to chores. What about creating a family tradition that laundry folding involves singing show tunes together? Maybe every Friday is new recipe night, with each season of the year involving mastering a new national cuisine.
There’s also something to be said for intentionally committing new time to a more ambitious happiness-building project. Weeknights can tend to take on a same-y quality of dinner and television before bed, and Sunday night is particularly dread inducing. In fact, in a Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology article,the researchers found an overall sense of better well-being among their subjects on weekend days. Making the decision to take a class, form a monthly book club or join a recreational sports league is not going to overwhelm most people’s schedules, and a meaningful social or learning commitment can create a midweek bright spot or transform a Sunday evening into a favorite time of the week.
Making better choices about how we spend the days that make up the bulk of our adult lives is a way of taking back autonomy, which itself is a happiness-inducing practice. Given the choice between days that blur together and days that increase our sense of agency and overall happiness, who wouldn’t choose the latter?
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