Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Most of us can’t imagine having lots of free time. In a 2008 USA Today survey, Boyd and Zimbardo reported that 69% of the respondents described themselves as busy or very busy, and about 49% of them wanted to be less busy.
Yet busy people often suddenly become less busy. A semester ends, or a deadline is met, or a family member no longer needs care, or a person retires. When this happens, people aren’t necessarily happier. When they were too busy, the idea of having open spans of time can seem like heaven. But when the open spans arrive, life can seem suddenly empty, aimless, and without structure. Why get up in the morning? Time, which was so fleeting and precious, now seems both plentiful and easily wasted.
How can we turn an excess of free time into greater well-being? What ideas can help us find Aristotle’s expert mean, just the right point between too much and too little to do, just the right amount of busy?
Too Much Time
A close friend was working very hard last year, barely having time to breathe. Now his workload has been cut in half, and he feels at loose ends. He remembers how precious time was, and he feels guilty about letting it slip away.
My daughter was thoroughly busy over the fall, spring, and summer terms, moving back to North Carolina, taking nursing school prerequisite courses, working a lot of hours at a part-time job, and taking nurse assistant training including practicum hours in a nursing home. Now suddenly she has only the part-time job. The last prerequisite course that she needs isn’t offered until the spring semester. She doesn’t have to be anywhere before 2PM each day.
Finding the Expert Mean
Recently my daughter explained to me what she decided to do in order to put the spine back into her life. It involves five ways of spending time:
- Making progress toward professional goals. She’s not taking any relevant classes right now, but she can work on her nursing school application and do some volunteer work that gives her relevant experience.
- Learning something new, something completely unrelated to professional goals, in order to gain breadth in her understanding of the world. She’s auditing two courses at the university this semester, one on early Renaissance art, the other on military aviation in the 20th century.
- Contributing to the world around her. She likes to have a social action project that fits her personal values.
- Having fun. She goes swimming in the quarry with friends, cooks (she’s a determined foodie), meets new people everywhere she goes, reads interesting books, and goes to music shows. She laughs a lot.
- Nurturing connections to other people. Since she moved back, she comes over to see us frequently, and she’s busy creating a new community of friends from the people she meets in classes, at work, and at social events. She also writes to her grandmother and her college friends who have scattered over the world. Like Aren Cohen, she enjoys elegant stationary.
So whenever she feels at loose ends, she thinks about these 5 items to figure out something she can do.
Looking Closer at the Five Ideas
Each one of these ideas has roots in the science of well-being. The best source I found for them was Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness, in which she describes 12 Happiness Activities.
Making progress toward professional goals is one way to carry out Happiness Activity number 10: Committing to Your Goals. Lyubomirsky quotes Australian psychiatrist, W. Beran Wolfe:
“If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert.” (p. 205)
She goes on to say, “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”
My daughter is young, so her goals are professional ones. But they don’t have to be. My husband retired with a list of 155 projects he wanted to do, including plant a butterfly garden and read the Western canon. He started the list long ago. I remember many conversations when our children were small that ended up, “That’s something I can do when I retire.” Only he didn’t just talk about them, he wrote them down in a list that he consults regularly. He reports that he has done 80. He is never without a goal.
Learning something new reminds me of Todd Kashdan’s work on curiosity. Todd Kashdan talks about curiosity being strongly related to anxiety. In fact, he uses the metaphor of anxiety and curiosity being on two ends of a slider. You can move the slider from being anxious to being curious as a way to improve well-being. So in this case, my daughter moved the slider from being anxious over properly using her time toward being curious about art, technology, and politics.
Learning something randomly new is a valued activity in our family. I read books out loud to my husband — we recently finished Paradise Lost by Milton, and we’ve read about science topics from cosmology to neuroscience to geology to genomics. It’s great fun to stretch my brain in new directions, and some of these topics are a real stretch. Right now, we’re reading Petroski’s book describing the engineering of bridges. I now view even footbridges with an interested eye.
Finding a social action project corresponds to the search for meaning by contributing to something larger than yourself, for example, as described in Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness. There’s tremendous variety possible here. I’ve seen people use unexpected spare time to become very involved in Habitat for Humanity, in lobbying the legislature for AARP causes, in reading to young children. It doesn’t have to be a huge contribution. When my mother retired, she no longer wanted to take lots of responsibility, but she was happy to file and answer the phone for a couple of non-profit organizations.
Having fun reminds me of Lyubomirsky’s Happiness Activity Number 9, Savoring Life’s Joys. She comments,
Yet the ability to savor the positive experiences in your life is one of the most important ingredients of happiness.”
“Researchers define savoring as any thoughts or behaviors capable of ‘generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment.'” (quoting Bryant and Veroff) (p. 191)
Nurturing connections is Lyubomirsky’s Activity number 5, Nurturing Social Relationships. She comments,
One of the themes of this book is that in order to become happier, we must learn to imitate the habits of very happy people. Happy people are exceptionally good at their friendships, families, and intimate relationships.” (p. 138).
Are these the only ways to take unexpected free time and turn it into greater well-being? Of course not! One other message of Lyubomirsky’s book is that fit is important — the happiness activities that you choose have to be ones that you are willing to persist in doing. They need to feel right for you. But perhaps these ideas will suggest things you can do even when you are very busy to be ready for a sudden expanse of free time. My husband’s project list was more than 30 years in the making.
Boniwell, I. & Keynes, M. (2005). Beyond time management: How the latest research on time perspective and perceived time use can assist clients with time-related concerns. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 3(2), 61-74.
Boniwell, I. (2009). Time in our lives: Time use satisfaction and its relationship with subjective well-being. VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.
Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Petroski, H. (2005). Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering. Vintage Press.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Zimbardo, P. & Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.
Time Flies courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Campanile and Duomo in Florence, Italy courtesy of Ruth Lozano
Summer in Redgranite Quarry courtesy of Just Add Light
Dahlias After a Rain courtesy of gailf548
Fade In (Sliders)
courtesy of billaday
Millenium Bridge on the Tyne River courtesy of Tony Hisgett