Let’s face it – most of us are always looking forward to the weekend. Or the free hours we get when we get home from work. After we have worked hard for 8 hours or more, we think that we deserve to have some time to ourselves to relax and take it easy. But how we spend our time off does not always make us feel that great. Read this article to find out why and how to use your free time to maximize your happiness.
You can’t wait to finish working and have some time for yourself. And when that time comes around, what do you do? Maybe you use some of that time to cook, hang out with friends or do some dishes. What do you do with the rest of the time? Let me take a wild guess: you probably spend most of your time watching random shows on TV, binge-watching shows on Netflix or scrolling down on Instagram. But for some reason, you always tell yourself that next weekend you’ll do something that’s more exciting and better for you. Yet somehow, you end up doing the same things over and over again.
The problem with watching movies
Sitting down and watching a screen is appealing – in a way. You don’t have to do anything! You can just lie in bed, stop thinking and forget about everything (the deadlines, the money you need to pay back to your parents or the argument you had with your boyfriend/girlfriend). It’s easy!
But is it enjoyable? Is it good for you? And is it making you happy? Let me answer that for you: NO. Surveys show that the feeling we experience while watching sitcoms is not happiness, joy or satisfaction - it is actually mild depression.1
This is the problem: we look forward to our time off but when it comes, instead of making the most of it, we spend it doing things that are making us miserable and depressed…or at least, they don’t make us any happier. Why do we do that to ourselves? It seems that one of the reasons is that we are not always aware what is better for us and what makes us happier.
A study conducted by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi focused on the way 500 teenagers spent their time off. Those in the first group used to spend a lot of time at the mall or watching television. The teenagers in the second group spent their time engaged in their hobbies, practiced sports and focused on their homework.1
This study showed that the teenagers in the second group did better in almost every aspect related to psychological well-being. The only aspect that made it seem that the group hanging out at the mall or in front of the TV was doing better is this: they seemed to have more fun.1 The teenagers who usually get involved in sports, hobbies or homework said that they would prefer going to the mall or watching TV. While these activities seem enjoying, they are definitely not the best ways to spend our time. So what should you be doing then?
The magic of flow
Instead of spending your time in a passive way – just looking at a screen, it is better to engage in activities that get you in “flow”.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for his theory about flow. According to him, flow is a state of concentration or immersion. You experience flow while doing a certain activity if you are so absorbed by it, that you forget about everything else – including yourself.1,2 You forget to eat, drink water and you lose track of time.
The study I mentioned looked at the type of activities that lead to flow and their effects. The reason why the teenagers involved in hobbies, sports and homework were feeling and doing better was because those activities allowed them to experience flow.
Why is flow so great? To experience flow, you need to get involved in an activity that requires you to use your skills and that challenges you to perform. As a result, you are excited by it and you feel confident and capable because of it.2 Experiencing flow makes us happier. And we want to pursue flow just for the sake of it.
How to experience flow
You can experience flow while doing different activities: reading, painting, writing, working out, solving a problem, cooking, gardening, working and so on. There are many things that you can do to get to this state. Here are the necessary conditions for flow:
- An activity to get involved in
You may experience flow while doing almost anything. But the activity has to be something that you are actively involved in. You need to do something, think about something, look for something. Sitting on the couch watching TV or looking at travel pictures on Instagram are passive so they won’t help you experience that.
- Your skills
You need to have some skills to get to a state where you can experience flow. If you are taking pictures, painting or writing an article for the first time, it is unlikely that you will “get in the zone”. But the more you do the same activity, the better you get and the more likely it is that you will be in flow.
- A challenge
The activity you engage in has to be stimulating. It has to make use of your abilities and challenge you in some way.
To get to experience flow, you need to find a balance between your skills and the challenge. If you are too skilled and the task is not challenging enough, you get bored. If you are just a beginner and the task is too challenging, you feel overwhelmed. While finding this balance is not easy, it is very rewarding.
If you want to become happier, use your time off engaging in flow-inducing activities. If you don’t know what these activities could be, ask yourself the following questions to help you identify them:
- Have you ever done something that made you forget about yourself and everything else? What were you doing? In what conditions?
- When do you lose track of time?
- What talents, skills or abilities do you have? Are you good at writing, working out or cooking?
- What are you interested in? Would you like to develop or improve your skills in that area?
- What activities used to seem challenging in the past? Can you make them more difficult to find them challenging again?
- Do you experience flow at work? What tasks do you find most enjoyable and most challenging?
Experiencing flow feels great and is also good for you. It makes you feel confident, competent and happier. That’s why it’s worth trying to find the perfect activity for you. However, I want to add one more thing – you will not experience flow every time and that’s alright. It is possible that even if you do find or create the perfect mix between your skills and the challenge of an activity, you may not experience flow every single time.
If this is the first time you hear about flow, you may have no idea what it is or how to experience it yet. But you have probably already experienced it – you just did not know what it was or what it’s called. Now that you know about it, you might realize you already experience this. If you do that, continue doing that activity on a regular basis.
Even if you have no idea what to do to experience flow, keep this in mind: spend your time off engaged in something. Don’t just let your life fly away while you are envying others because they are having more fun than you (or so it seems). Start making the most of your free time and do something! Start a blog to share your opinion on climate change or to write about your random thoughts. Learn how to take better pictures. Go hiking with friends. Start cooking dinner every night. Talk to a friend about something that matters. Play board games. Go camping. Do something!
I think that if you work hard, you deserve to make the most of your time off. So I encourage you to find a better way to spend it. Staying at home and watching movies or looking at photos on Instagram is easy, but is this the best thing you can do? Is this the only thing you deserve? You only have one life and the way you spend your time off can make a very big difference. It can make your life miserable or boring, or it can make your life exciting, meaningful and better. If you want to be happier, spend that time engaged in activities that challenge you. And when you’ll experience the magic of flow, you’ll want to experience more – I’m sure!
The way you spend your time off can increase your happiness or take away from it. But we are often ruled by habits and we are unaware that there are things we can do differently to live a better life. If you realize that you have a great life but you are still not happy, I want to tell you this: you can learn how to become happier. The science of happiness can help us make better decisions and feel better.
If you don’t know what to do to become happier, you can get started by reading my book “Happy by Choice”. It will help you let go of negativity and develop better habits to finally feel happier with your life!
- Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman
- The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky