James Wallman, a journalist and trendwatcher, has explored how we can use our free time to create experiences that make us happier. He shared seven insights with Happinez. Telling a good story, for example, can contribute to your happiness, and other people’s as well.
Stories build connections between people, connections strengthen relationships and strong relationships make us happy. So the best way to spend our free time is by creating and telling a good story, James Wallman says. But what makes a story a good story? You’re on the right track if it takes the form of a hero’s journey, the kind of story found in every culture in the world that is so gripping that we can never get enough of it. Every story of this type can be summed up the same way: A hero sets out on a journey, runs into one or two problems (or more) along the way, and solves them.
“If you come home from vacation and people ask you how it was, focus mainly on the difficulties you overcame. Car trouble or a jellyfish bite is more likely to captivate your listeners than your tale of one sleepy afternoon after another by the swimming pool. You’ll enjoy seeing them hang on your every word, wondering what happened next, because that deepens and improves your connections to other people.”
Tales of obstacles and tribulations will also give your vacation or day off new meaning for you. “So when you make plans for your free time, make sure there’s an element of adventure, like a new city or a challenging hike. And don’t be afraid of setbacks. When things go wrong, we often think it will ruin everything, but the opposite is true. The challenges are the things that enrich your experience. They give you the opportunity to show resilience. And when you overcome them and return to your everyday life, you see the world with fresh eyes.”
If you want to spend your time as wisely as possible, build in as much room as you can for growth and change, because that too will make your life richer and happier. “Every once in a while, take the time to learn something new,” Wallman says. “Spend part of your vacation to learn to surf or shear sheep. Or you can learn to play guitar. That’s a great way of making new friends by a campfire on the beach. I once spent a month in India, doing a lot of yoga. That helped me to become more like the person I always wanted to be, so it made me happier. What I’m trying to say is, seek out change. The greater your personal growth, the more you’ll get out of your time. If your experiences have an element of personal growth—and it doesn’t have to be anything earth-shaking—then they’ll become better memories and have more impact on your life, boosting your self-esteem and making a great story you can share.”
What surprised Wallman the most as he was writing his book were the results of one of the world’s longest-running research studies, in which the scientists tracked their subjects from birth to death. The study showed that the most important factor for predicting longevity was not diet or exercise, but the quality of your friendships.
“After I read that,I took a good look at myself,” Wallman says. “I realized I wasn’t doing enough to maintain my friendships, so I decided to get back in touch with some old friends I’d been neglecting.” He says we should all be doing more of that, spending time with the people we care about, and the people who care about us. That’s the key to a life that’s not only long, but happy. “Loneliness is one of the most fatal conditions. It’s hard to measure because it’s a subjective feeling: you can feel lonely in a huge crowd, at a party or in a relationship. But when you come right down to it, loneliness is about poor-quality relationships. And going after experiences is the best way to make more and better connections with others.
You don’t have to surround yourself with friends all the time. Going to the movies or for a walk on your own can also create connection, because you can tell other people about it later. So don’t just search for happiness on the inside, but share it with others too. That makes for great conversations and better friendships.”
Sometimes you’re completely absorbed in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s writing an article, competing in a race, or caring for a sick child. The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people are happiest when they do things that require their full attention (the term he uses is “psychic energy”). He refers to this state as flow.
According to Wallman, flow is the secret to the best kinds of experiences and the most fulfilling way to spend your time. “You may think that comfort and relaxation make you happiest, but the opposite is true. It’s the difficult and challenging things that are good for us. That doesn’t mean you should head for the steepest, most dangerous slope the first time you go skiing. The art of flow lies in finding experiences that are at the edge of your personal boundary, offering just the right challenge for your level of skill.”
Flow experiences are also linked to the social dimension of happiness. Scientists have discovered that group activities like playing basketball or performing music in a group more often lead to flow than things you do on your own. “That’s one reason it’s so much fun to swap stories about your experiences with friends,” Wallman explains. “When you tell a story, listen and respond, you find yourself in an interactive flow. Flow is accessible to everyone, as long as you’re willing to emerge from the shadows and seek out struggles and challenges, because they’re a crucial part of a worthwhile, happy life.”
Our brain still hasn’t forgotten where our forefathers lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, in nature. Wallman says, “Scientists have discovered we’re happier when we spend more time around trees, and other studies have shown that we’re much happier on the coast or on the banks of a river than in the city. In hospitals, even just a photograph of trees on the wall can help people recover faster.
So take advantage of every bit of nature you can find. If you have time to spare, go to the park or take a walk in the woods. When you wake up on Saturday morning, plan a long hike or canoeing trip. And keep houseplants, because taking care of them will also make you happier.”
One more thing: When you go outside, leave your telephone at home. “The magical thing is that without a phone in your pocket, you’re much more present and connected to the people around you. That gives you a sense of freedom.” It’s a simple message, which we’re hearing from researchers more and more often: We’re happier offline than on. Wallman adds, “Our natural inclination is to spend time with other people, not in the virtual realm, but in real time. I’ve removed Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and email from my own phone so they won’t distract me from what matters, real contact with real people. And never take your phone to bed with you. You’ll sleep better and have better sex without it.”
“Why does status make people feel good?” Wallman asks. “Because it gives you the opportunity to do things you like doing. It gives you a sense of control, and that’s similar to flow.”But please note, the kind of status he’s talking about has nothing to do with being an arrogant snob. Instead, it’s a form of healthy self-esteem. “Getting involved in your neighborhood, doing volunteer work and becoming a member of a club or association are all activities that raise your status. A friend of mine who suffered from frequent depression started organizing events for his athletics club. That raised his status, because more people know who he is now. And that made him much happier.”
So spend at least part of your time on things that increase your status in this sense, Wallman says. “Those are often difficult, intense things that give you the feeling you’ve accomplished something. It could be as simple as playing tennis or painting, or learning new things, no matter what they are. A little while ago, I took a stand-up comedy course, which was incredibly hard for me. But because I was standing on stage telling jokes that made people laugh, it enhanced my sense of status, and my happiness.”
If you want to get the most out of your time, keep in mind that every experience has three stages: anticipation, experience, and the memory. “Experiences are much more fun than things, because you can look forward to them,” Wallman says. “Anticipation is the bonus happiness, even before the experience itself begins.
So plan your experiences to involve all three stages. Vacation planning is a great example. You can consciously enjoy making plans and creating lots of opportunities for great experiences on your travels. And those experiences will become memories you can cherish for many years afterwards.” Wallman says it’s a proven fact that we have the strongest memories of the beginning and end of a vacation and the highlights in the middle. “The beginning is for discoveries and doing new things. The best highlights are experiences that are new and unusual, with an element of wonder, like seeing a spectacular starry sky or sunset. The best kind of ending includes a moment of enjoyable reflection, looking back at your experiences and wrapping up your trip. And it’s helpful to realize that the length of the vacation makes no difference to the quality of your experiences. So you’re better off planning lots of brief vacations than one long one. That gives you more good memories and more happiness.”
This article is part of our issue 20, 2020 ‘Take Your Time’.
Text: Hidde Tangerman
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