There are a number of books about how to work more effectively and be more efficient, providing tips, rules and complicated structures. But can you ever make all of the stuff better in life? In the opinion of author James Wallman of the book, Time and How to Spend It: The 7 Rules for Richer, Happier Days, adding satisfaction to your life is less about the decisions you make at work and more about the decisions you make outside of work.
In order to make healthier decisions with your free time, Wallman has put together a checklist so that you can feel more fulfilled and continue to live a more fulfilling life. His results are the product of speaking to some of today’s leading scholars, including the London School of Economics, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Cornell, and putting together studies from a range of sources.
For concerns about free time, taking a back seat to concerns about becoming more efficient is pretty normal. Indeed, in a capitalist society, if you were raised, you might think that time not spent making money is wasted time. This may also be why we prefer to idealize individuals who are constantly busy looking after the next piece of business.
Our desire to be efficient also explains why we tend to feel like we have less free time than we actually do. Studies have shown that the average American has five hours and fourteen minutes of free time per day, while the average Brit has five hours and forty-nine minutes.
Yet other studies show that, despite these healthy sums, four out of five Americans feel they don’t have enough time to do what they’d like, while three out of four Brits feel they aren’t getting the most out of their time.
But other reasons for feeling like we don’t have a lot of free time are there. The fact that individuals spend a daily average of three and a half hours engaging with their phones is at the top of this list. This also comes from the fact that there is an anxiety-inducing fear of missing out on something, known as FOMO, with too many emails , messages and social media updates coming everyday, which results in hours spent just keeping up with your digital life.
But here’s the thing: even though we place a high value on work and productivity, they aren’t the only important things in life, especially when it comes to feeling happy and satisfied. According to multiple studies from institutions like Harvard Business School and Cornell University, what really brings happiness into people’s lives are experiences.
While this is a pretty interesting idea on its own, research also shows that happiness is a strong precursor to success. Conventional wisdom usually tells us that happiness is a byproduct of success, and yet a lot of evidence suggests that it’s actually the other way around.
What all this adds up to is that positive interactions contribute to happiness, contributing to success in turn. So, we should strive to have meaningful interactions in order to achieve success. Then the question becomes: What is a good experience and how can I get more of them into my life? What kind of positive experiences lead to enduring, sustainable happiness? In researching this question the author came up with the STORIES checklist.
This stands for Story, Transformation, Outside & Offline, Relationships, Intensity, Extraordinary, and Status & Significance.
So when considering whether or not an activity is going to be a worthwhile way of spending your time, the first question you can ask yourself is: Will it add to my Story? Any valuable experience will add to your story by ticking off one or all of the items on the checklist.
There are two popular versions of all the heroic stories we find so satisfying. The first is called “The Man in a Hole Story,” introduced by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It suggests that every hero in a narrative starts out in a good place, then gradually sinks into a hole of misfortune before being restored to good fortune by the end of the story.
The other version of this story is what scholar Joseph Campbell calls “The Hero’s Journey,” which is a more circular tale. It starts out in the ordinary world, where the hero accepts a “call to action” that requires perseverance through many trials and tribulations.
Through this process, the hero learns new skills, overcomes the supreme ordeal, receives a reward and returns home. In the end, he shares the gifts and wisdom he acquired, and in doing so forever changes the ordinary world into a new world.
You can not only understand what your real call to action is by putting yourself in the role of the hero, but you can also start to be more adventurous and understand that challenges and hardships are vital to our stories and should not be avoided. It is through these difficult experiences that we learn the instruments that allow us to achieve our goals and destroy our own metaphorical dragons.
When you put yourself on the path of your own hero, you will begin to see that change is the name of the game, transformation, on our checklist. After all, if you were watching a story that didn’t change the hero in some way, it would be pretty dull and maybe even sad, wouldn’t it? Well, the same holds true for your life, and that’s why the secret to becoming happier and more fulfilled is improvement and personal growth.
This is a good time to consider two simple but revealing questions: Looking back over the past ten years, how much do you think you’ve changed, on a scale of one to ten? Now, how much do you think you’ll change over the next ten years?
For most people, the first number is higher than the second, and this is known in psychology as the end of history illusion, which means we tend to think of change as something happening in the past, not the future. As a result, significant changes are often unplanned.
But once you understand that change is a key part of a fulfilling life, you can start actively seeking it out, by finding experiences that bring new inspiration, new skills and other transformative elements into your life.
Let’s take vacationing, for instance. There are basically three ways you can approach a vacation: fly and flop, find and seek, or go and become. With fly and flop, personal development is not on the menu. Fly and flop might involve going to a resort and engaging in passive experiences like lying in the sun, eating familiar foods and reading books and magazines that require very little effort on your part. While it might be relaxing, this approach results in some pretty dull stories to tell others back home.
Find and seek involves more active engagement. You travel to new places with the intent to explore, or maybe attend a music festival like Burning Man. You’ll see new things and have some interesting stories to tell, but for the most part it’s an experience that any other sightseer or concert-goer might have.
The go and become approach, however, offers a real chance for transformation. In this scenario, your vacation would come with a purposeful intent to learn inspirational things about different cultures and customs, or new skills like painting, boating or traditional sushi techniques. Or it might involve a spiritual retreat of some kind.
Whatever the case may be, it will include very personal, and possibly very transformational, experiences – and therefore a great story.
Next on the STORIES checklist is Outside and Offline, which is pretty self-explanatory: valuable experiences that lead to happiness are more likely to take place in nature and away from the online world. Let’s first consider the benefits of nature.
Japanese researchers started investigating the claims of health benefits around a pastime known as shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, around 1990, and the claims seemed to be true , of course. These immersive forest walks were much more efficient at reducing anxiety, frustration and exhaustion as well as blood pressure and cortisol levels compared to walks on a treadmill, thus enhancing mood at the same time.
There’s also the revealing evidence gleaned from the 20,000 or so users of the Mappiness app, who periodically entered their mood and activity while the app recorded GPS and weather data.
Ultimately, the data showed that people were unhappiest while at work, sick in bed, or commuting to work, and that they were happiest while in nature – especially when close to water. Happiness levels in coastal areas, for instance, were generally six points higher than in urban areas.
At work here, there’s a biological component. Scientists agree that we are inherently predisposed, from an evolutionary viewpoint, to appreciate nature and water’s soothing sights, sounds and smells. Biological variables also assist to understand why we should want to spend more offline time.
Researchers have long known that humans are susceptible to conditioning. You may be familiar with the psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who over a century ago conditioned dogs to salivate with hunger – not in the presence of food, but at the sound of a metronome that signified the arrival of food.
Interaction with your smartphone is much like gambling on a slot machine: what’s at work is a system of operational conditioning known as intermittent variable rewards.
This means that you engage with a system that provides significant or small incentives with an inconsistent promise. And even the smartest people can end up picking up their phones 300 times a day when this happens, checking how many likes their latest Instagram or Facebook post has picked up, or scouting for a funny new meme.
The problem is that too much time online leads to feelings of loneliness, tension, depression and insomnia, as several studies in the US and Europe demonstrate. Fortunately, though, if you start to spend less time online now, your attitude will automatically improve.
Check out my related post: Why you should manage your energy rather than time?