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A Huge New Study Reveals Most of Us Are Terrible at Choosing How We Spend Our Free Time

Happiness, both science and experience teach us, is a complicated concept. The good life is made of connection, meaning, beauty, learning, and momentary pleasure. And we often have to sacrifice one of these in order to chase another. As entrepreneurs and parents of small children can tell you, those things that give us the most satisfaction in the long run are often pretty miserable day to day. 

This complexity has made building a happy life the subject of millennia of philosophical thought and way too big a topic for a short column like this. But while I can’t tell you how to answer the biggest of questions, I can point you to fascinating new research that shows you’re probably getting the smallest and most easily changed parts of the happiness equation badly wrong. 

Out of 27 leisure activities, guess which brings people the least joy? 

When we think of how to optimize our happiness, we often think first about the big things. Who should be my partner? What should be my life’s work? Where should I live? These are all hugely important questions, but getting them right is personal and difficult. How you spend your free time, however, is in your control and easy to change. There’s nothing stopping you from switching from fishing to golf or baking or whatever. 

And these choices, as minor as they seem, actually matter a lot. A big body of research shows hobbies kill stress, boost resilience, improve creativity, and even help us perform better at work. Studies also show that the specific hobbies you choose matters. Social hobbies, for instance, have been shown to make people significantly happier than solo ones. And a huge amount of data shows that happiness helps you be more successful. 

Which is a nice segue into the study I mentioned above (hat tip to this New York Times op-ed from former Google data science and author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz for the pointer). In previous generations, when researchers wanted to study happiness they had to ask subjects to reflect on the past and fill out labor-intensive surveys. People misremembered, lied, or slacked off, so the data wasn’t ideal. Now thanks to ubiquitous smartphones, researchers who want to know how happy people are at any given moment can just ping them with a 30-second survey and ask. 

Thus technology has led to an explosion in the quality and quantity of data on moment-by-moment happiness. Again, this data doesn’t tell us all we need to know to design a happy life — eating cake might be a perfect 10 on your joy scale, but you will likely be disappointed on your deathbed if that’s all you did with your life — but it does offer great insight into what activities bring us the most momentary joy. 

So what’s the verdict after scientists pinged tens of thousands of people to ask about their activities and mood, collecting millions of data points? In short, many of us are really bad at choosing how we spend our free time. 

Out of 27 possible leisure activities listed by the researchers’ app, “texting, email, and social media” came in dead last in terms of happiness. Just slightly above it was browsing the internet. The only activities people liked less than being online were things like commuting, being sick in bed, and dealing with admin or finances. 

What leisure activities brought people the most happiness? It will shock no one to learn that sex topped the list of most joyful activities. Attending performances, going to museums and libraries, exercise and sports, gardening, performing music, hanging out with friends, and being out in nature were next on the list. 

How much time do you spend doing the most joyful activities? 

None of that is hugely surprising if you follow research on happiness (and probably even if you don’t), but it does raise an obvious question: Which of these activities do you actually spend most of your free time doing? Does how you spend your leisure hours line up well with the data on what actually makes people happy? 

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I suggest many of us spend tons of time on screen-based activities that science shows don’t bring us much joy, and comparatively little time on real-world activities that do. 

Changing your career is hard. Changing your spouse is even harder. But changing what you do on a Saturday afternoon is dead easy. It won’t fix all your happiness problems, but this research suggests it could bring you much more in-the-moment joy. While you figure out the rest of it, why not take the easy win? 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.