Cassie Holmes, Ph. D., is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and an award-winning teacher and researcher of time and happiness. Her new book, Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most (Amazon, Bookshop), just hit shelves.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Cassie about happiness, habits, and time management strategies.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier?
Cassie: Habits are useful because they help us consistently engage in behaviors that are good for us without having to apply much thought. The problem from a happiness perspective is that not thinking about our behaviors as we engage in them can also mean not paying attention to the many moments that might bring us joy. We risk missing out on a lot of potential happiness that is already right there in our daily lives.
In one of my favorite chapters of my new book Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most, I describe this psychological tendency to adapt to life’s good stuff and, more importantly, provide strategies to offset it so that you can savor and continue to delight in those joyful moments.
One of these strategies is to turn routine into ritual. For example, when I turned my daughter’s and my routine stop at the coffee shop into a treasured ritual, this weekly activity became special. It took on greater meaning—demanding our attention and providing increased happiness. Years into repeatedly doing this activity, our “Thursday Morning Coffee Date” (which has since moved to Sunday mornings to accommodate current scheduling demands) continues to be a half-hour that we protect for just the two of us to revel in each other’s company over warm beverages and flakey croissants. Earlier in the week, we eagerly anticipate this time, and throughout the week, we can fondly revisit this time in our minds when we’re apart. This shared ritual keeps us connected amidst our harried weeks and passing years.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers?
As a mother of young kids, I have often felt extremely time poor—having too much to do and not enough time to do it. And, unfortunately, I know I’m not alone in this. I conducted a national poll showing that nearly half of Americans suffer from time poverty. Even though moms tend to feel more time poor than dads, and even though working parents tend to feel particularly impoverished, our data shows that all types of people lack for time, including those without kids and those who are not working for pay. This pervasiveness is bad because our results also show that people who feel time poor are less healthy, less kind, and less happy. There have even been points when I’ve felt so time poor that I’ve considered quitting my career as a professor. I believed that if only I had more hours in the day to spend how I wanted, I’d be happier.
Yet, additional research my team has conducted suggests this isn’t necessarily true. We analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey to figure out the relationship between the number of discretionary hours people have in the day and their happiness. The robust pattern of results that came out of our analyses revealed an upside-down U-shape—like an arc or a rainbow. Though one tip of the arc validated my unhappiness from having too little time, the other tip (and similarly low point) surprised me and cautioned me not to quit. It showed that there is such thing as having too much time. But why? Through additional studies and analyses, we learned that people are averse to being idle, and having too much discretionary time undermines our sense of being productive and having purpose.
So, despite my belief that having more time would be better, this research shows that for happiness, it’s not just about the amount you have. It’s also about how you invest what you have. And that’s what Happier Hour is all about: it’s an empirically-based guide for how to spend time so that your days aren’t just overly full, but feel fulfilling.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I’ve learned that much of happiness is a choice, and that research can help inform the many little and simple choices we make in our days to experience greater happiness with our lives. That is, it’s not just our inherited temperament or the lucky (or unlucky) circumstances we find ourselves in that determine our life satisfaction. (I can now assure my 18-year-old self that my cheeriness was not merely charmed naiveté.) Rather, how we choose to spend our time has a significant influence on how happy we feel.
To inform your choices, time tracking studies offer useful guidance. In addition, I suggest you conduct a bit of your own research by tracking your time for at least one week (but ideally two)—writing down what you’re doing, and rating how happy you’re feeling while doing it. This will lead you to discover which activities actually produce the greatest and least amount of happiness (and they aren’t always the ones you’d predict!). There’s a helpful worksheet on my website—www.cassiemholmes.com—and more detailed instructions in Happier Hour. From this, you’ll have the personalized data you need to reallocate some of your hours to make more of them happier hours.
Does anything tend to interfere with your happiness?
The thing that interferes most with my happiness is that I am so often distracted—in particular, by the running to-do list in my mind and the constant planning that’s required to check off its items. Indeed, research shows that we are distracted (i.e., not thinking about what we are currently doing) almost 50% of the time. Furthermore, we are significantly less happy during these times when our minds are wandering away from our present activity. Not wanting to mentally miss out on so much potential happiness, I have to be diligent about shifting from my typical doing mode so that I can spend more time being. To more fully enjoy my activities (especially those I identified from my time tracking exercise as the happiest), I follow my strategies in Happier Hour, including carving out times as “no phone zones” and treating the weekend like a vacation.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
For happiness and satisfaction in life, our most critical resource is time (not money).