By JANET ZIMMERMAN
April 14, 2008
So says a team of five university professors who devised a scientific method to quantify people's emotions during certain activities. What they found: Americans are not making the best use of their leisure hours.
While our standard of living has increased over the 40 years studied -- with less time spent on mundane household chores and more minutes of "neutral downtime," such as watching TV -- our happiness levels haven't.
Too much TV is to blame, according to David Schkade, a professor of management at the University of California-San Diego.
The problem is that television viewing is often done in isolation. But more active, stimulating recreation and group activities are what help us feel connected and content, Schkade said.
"Make the effort to go out and engage with your family or friends or exercise or read. It would make your life better," he said.
Years of research on the topic also determined that income well beyond that needed for subsisting doesn't coincide with higher levels of happiness.
The findings may seem obvious, Schkade acknowledged, "but now we have evidence."
The research is innovative because, unlike other measurements that look at overall satisfaction with life and ask people to recall feelings from long before, this method isolates emotions tied to specific activities and uses more immediate reporting of those feelings, the researchers said.
Schkade and his colleagues surveyed 4,000 people about events of the previous day, then asked them to rate the activities on whether they felt happy, sad, stressed, interested or in pain at the time. The research team then calculated the percentage of time people spent in an unpleasant state.
Compared with time-use studies from 1965, people surveyed in 2005 had more free time for leisure and spiritual activities, but instead had increased their television viewing from 11 percent to 17 percent among men and from 8 percent to 14 percent among women.
"TV is kind of a middling activity in terms of how happy people are when they're doing it," said Schkade, who worked with Arthur A. Stone, Daniel Kahneman, Alan Krueger and Norbert Schwarz. Their findings have been published in Science and will be the subject of a book later this year.
The research also showed that money doesn't buy happiness.
People with higher incomes spend much of their days doing things they would rather not be doing, said Stone, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Stony Brook University in New York.
The tradeoff for a nice house in the suburbs is often a long commute, Schkade said.
"If you have two hours of (free) time every day, what would you do with it? You could spend more time with your family or friends or in school or some other activity that improves your life," he said.
It's a paradox, said University of California-Riverside psychology professor Howard Friedman.
For the past several decades, about one-third of Americans have reported that they are very happy, even though the average per capita income, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled. So, rising incomes have not raised happiness levels, Friedman said.
The reason? Not having a close community in which to engage, and a lack of cooperative activities such as sports, church or charities, he said.
"It is not how much money you have that directly influences whether you are happy or miserable, but rather how you think about your existence, including comparing yourself to other people," Friedman said. "It is also the case that activities like being with friends, and being deeply engaged in a hobby or enjoyable work, and being physically active increase one's sense of well-being."
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