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What is the Best Way to Maximize Happiness in a Typical Day? Science Found the Answer

The building blocks for a fulfilling life are nothing more than moments. Our most precious resources of time, energy, and attention must be spent more wisely. Science offers insights into how to construct episodes during waking hours to better approximate “the perfect day.” Learn what “the perfect day” looks like, and see how close the fit is to your own vision.

As society gets richer, and income trickles down to individuals, a question arises as to what people can do with their time to optimize well-being? After all, if basic needs are met, and you can afford experiences that offer pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning, then unless you are getting paid to pursue a calling, it seems sensible to shift away from 40, 50, 60-hour workweeks. Not everyone has this luxury, as opportunity is not distributed equally. But for those with an opportunity to construct a typical day’s episodes, what exactly would they like to be spending their most precious resources on: time and energy?

What should we schedule in when optimizing the perfect day? For singer Lou Reed, singing the “Perfect Day” it’s about spending time with a lover drinking sangria in the park, feeding animals in the zoo, going to the movie theatre, and then heading home. George Strait and Taylor Swift each sing about “The Best Day,” and it’s a sequence of small, significant events with dads — for Strait, a fishing trip with a drive to the woods, fishing, cold sodas, and sleeping in a tent and for Swift it was setting up a paint set in the kitchen as they talked, dressed up as princesses and pirates, and then read bedtime stories.

Scientifically Constructing “The Perfect Day”

Capturing a single day in the life of 909 working women, a team of scientists from Germany and the USA crunched the numbers on what leads to a fully optimized 16 hours.

If these working women budgeted time for maximal positive experiences and minimal negative experiences they would end up with:

  • 106 minutes socializing with close friends and any other intimate characters
  • 82 minutes socializing with other people
  • 78 minutes relaxing or winding down
  • 73 minutes meditating or praying
  • 68 minutes exercising
  • 57 minutes on phone calls
  • 56 minutes shopping
  • 55 minutes watching television
  • 50 minutes preparing food
  • 48 minutes on a computer screen
  • 47 minutes of housework
  • 46 minutes on childcare
  • A tight 46-minute nap
  • 36 minutes of dedicated work
  • And no more than 33 minutes commuting to and fro

The beauty of this schedule is it’s about managing through typical responsibilities without frittering away one’s quality of life. Notice what stands out for you. There are lessons about the divergence between what we do and what would be of greatest value to us.

Lessons for Better Time Use

If there is anything to be learned from science, it’s that we socialize far too little, especially with beloved, self-selected characters who we can be effortlessly ourselves around. Odds are most of don’t spend three hours per day socializing. And yet, there is one single factor that separates the happiest and least happy people and it’s the presence of satisfying, significant relationships. Having close relationships is nice, investing in face-to-face activities together is what produces satisfying moments.

We work way too much, and the presence of smartphones only adds to the creeping temptation to check emails and get a head start for the next day when this life domain should be closed until the next shift (I mean, in an attempt to finish a few final pieces when home what you really do is add a regular second shift). Take heed of how little time is spent in front of a computer screen in an optimized day. Those lost hours writing emails, checking on how many people liked your social media posts, are swapped out for a lot of exercise, relaxation, and a sweet mid-day nap.

We know that the amount of enjoyment we extract from watching television, and talking to co-workers, neighbors, and disinterested family members is low, and degrades quickly compared with preferred company. We know that on too many days, we pile on more than can be handled, especially when taking care of a household and raising kids. And yet, many of us experience a sense of inertia, unable to transition from one activity to the next when the value is declining or over.

Use the map of the perfect day as a guide. Reorient your schedule to include what nourishes your mind and body. Schedule activities using half hour or hour intervals. Treat these time blocks as you would a doctor appointment that are only to be missed in emergencies. You become what you habitually do. There will never be “the right time” to fit in what you desire. Plenty of time each day is ready to be sucked up by those paying you, those dependent on you, and wealthy companies incentivized to keep your eyeballs glued to a computer screen irrespective of what joy or meaning it brings.

Caution: A Fulfilling Life Goes Beyond Happiness

As tantalizing as these findings are, remember that this ideal schedule is based on a sample of women working at one factory on a single weekday. Individual results will vary based on personality, interests, health, life circumstances, and how much you view your work as a job, career, or sense of purpose in life, and whether you truly relish being with kids (if you have them).

We also know that happiness is not the only end game. Yes, pursuing a high frequency of positive emotions, a low frequency of negative emotions, and a life that is close to ideal is a worthy pursuit. Sometimes we intentionally detour from happiness because we want to feel engrossed in an activity, invest in something that extends beyond the self (such as helping others and making the world a better place), and develop our body (such as our strength, health, and energy) and expand the self (such as our status, skills, influence, and achievement). Experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety, confusion, and anger provide motivational fuel to achieve these growth-oriented strivings. When optimizing days, be sure to consider what is personally valuable enough to sacrifice short-term and even long-term positive experiences for.

A Commitment to Improved Daily Living Starts Now

Be empowered to construct your own personalized time use plan. Commit to being fulfilled in your one single life on Earth. What will you dedicate more time to this month so that it can be allocated to something more personally meaningful? What about this upcoming week? What about today?

Provocation

What metrics are you using to tell whether a day has been wisely spent? Start measuring what you care about. Maybe it’s how many words you write per day, amount of time socializing with people you care about, or hours playing with your children. Pay close attention to whatever it is that is important and you will be tethered to the life you want to lead and less likely to drift off into useless drivel.